Listen to this story
I’m teetering on the roof-edge of a concrete tomb. The air is filled with the scent of sweat and rum, and I’m being jostled from all sides by excitable, dancing men, hollering announcements in Malagasy to the surrounding crowd of two or three thousand people. They wave their arms, swaying to the upbeat trumpets of the brass band. We inhale dust as, below us, men in baseball caps drive shovels into the dry, compacted earth. The crowd waits eagerly, many of them clutching rolled-up straw mats. They demand the men dig faster, and bring out their dead.
So, you know, basically a typical Friday.
This is Famadihana, or the “Turning of the Bones,” a festival for the dead held in the highlands of Madagascar. Every five to seven years, people honor their ancestors by exhuming them from the family tomb and wrapping them in fresh shrouds. It’s joyful, with music, hog roasts, rum, and dancing. My companions are Eric, a 51-year-old polylingual driver and tour guide from eastern Madagascar, with whom I speak an absurd mix of English, French, and Italian; and Lala, a 34-year-old woman who lives in northern Madagascar and regularly makes the long and arduous journey to visit her family. It’s been more than a year since I first contacted a specialist tour company in the hope of securing an invite to Famadihana. Just two months before, I received the email: Lala had invited me to attend her family’s ceremony in the village of Ambatomiady, around 70 miles from the capital city of Antananarivo.
“Eric,” I say, gripping the dusty pink cross on top of the tomb, “did you say this is all one family?”
“Yes,” Eric nods, taking my backpack and slotting it onto his front so I don’t drop it on the corpses that are about to emerge. “Lala has 15 siblings, and that’s normal. So if they all grow up and get married, and they each have 15 children…” He indicates the crowd. It’s simple math.
“Do they all know each other?”
“No!” he waves his hand. “That’s one of the most important reasons to have Famadihana. So they can meet each other.”
Famadihana is not simple or quick to organize. The family decides on a rough date — an odd number of years since the last, as it’s fady (taboo) to turn the bones on an even year. Then, they must ask a local astrologer three to six months beforehand which date would be safe to open the tomb. Some dates are off limits — it’s fady to open a tomb on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, or to talk about exactly how many bodies are inside a tomb, or to point at one (if you must indicate, you use your knuckle). The astrologer asks when the tomb was constructed — this one is almost 70 years old — and issues a selection of dates. The family must then apply for legal permission from the state to open it.
On the ground, the shovels hit stone. The moment is coming.
The importance of ancestors in Madagascar is visible to the naked eye; as we drove across the red earth topped with patches of faded green grass, I noticed tombs made of concrete and granite sitting on hills, watching over villages of tiny houses made of mud, sticks, and straw.
“I heard that in the ’80s, an aid organization donated concrete to Madagascar,” I told Eric, “It was for people to upgrade their houses so they’d be less vulnerable to cyclones, but instead they upgraded the tombs. Is that true?”
“Yes,” said Eric, “People are happy to live in mud huts they have to rebuild over and over, but tombs have to last forever.”
We arrived at Lala’s family’s house after an adventurous 11-mile dirt track made almost entirely of potholes and craters. I stepped over a patch of blood to shake hands with the family, who were tending to two slaughtered pigs laid out on the ground atop some tree branches. The Malagasy flag flew from the thatched roof — a sign that Famadihana was in progress — above two giant speakers set up for the party that evening.
After a night and morning of eating, drinking, and dancing, Eric and I were invited to climb a ladder to the top floor of the cottage, where we sat on the floor with Lala and her family in a circle. The oldest member of the family, 72-year-old Rafaely, gave a welcome speech. Eric translated as I presented the family with a shroud and some bottles of rum, thanking them for the invite. And then the whole group danced along with the blaring trumpets of the brass band as we made our way uphill to the tomb.
The men toss aside their shovels, having uncovered a stone slab. They slide it back and dive into the tomb. People step forward and pass their straw mats. They disappear into the tombs, place the ancestors on the mats, and pass them up. Their names are still visible on the earth-stained shrouds, scrawled on the side in Sharpie. The descendants hoist them upon their shoulders and walk them to the back of the crowd.
“That’s Lala’s grandfather,” Eric says, as the fifth body emerges from the tomb. “Let’s go!” We climb down a rickety wooden ladder, and jog through the crowd with “Follow that car!” energy. It takes us a few minutes to find the right corpse, which is not a sentence I ever expected to write. A man rips strips off a new shroud and mutters, his eyes wet with tears.
“He’s saying, ‘I haven’t got a dad anymore,’” Eric whispers, “‘I’m an orphan.’”
On the journey here, Lala’s father said the overwhelming emotion of exhuming the bodies is sadness, an intense renewal of the loss. Rather than treating bereavement like a flesh wound that heals with time, Famadihana rips it all open again, if only for a moment. Grief is the small print of love.
They disappear into the tombs, place the ancestors on the mats, and pass them up. Their names are still visible on the earth-stained shrouds, scrawled on the side in sharpie.
They wrap him in a silk sheet, tie it up with the fabric strips. The music swells and all around us, people start to hoist the bodies onto their shoulders.
Famadihana is eye-wateringly expensive. “You’re feeding an entire village for two or three days,” said Eric, “You’re hiring a band, maybe paying for transportation for families who live far away. Some families save money by doing small, simple celebrations — but for others that’s not acceptable.”
Often, people get a bank loan to pay for it, and fall into cycles of debt; it might take three or four years to pay off, at which point the next ceremony is just a year or two away. Like many African nations, Madagascar had an influx of Christian missionaries — white saviors of the soul — beginning in the 1800s. Now, while around half the population maintain traditional religious practices, the U.S. Department of State reports that around 41% practice Christianity. Eric tells me that this has led to some tension, with many Malagasy Christians questioning the value of spending money on the dead, as life for the living becomes ever more expensive.
That is, of course, easy for them to say.
“In the Malagasy tradition, we don’t have Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed,” said Eric. “The ancestors are our prophets, our intermediary, the link between us and God. That’s why it’s important to take care of them.” To suggest Malagasy people stop venerating their ancestors is essentially recommending they abandon their prophet, their advocate, their protection against mortal terror.
Regardless of our beliefs, we all find ways to immortalize ourselves. Some of us follow religions that tell us our souls are immortal, that we’ll reincarnate or go to heaven. Non-believers might find symbolic immortality in naming children, stars, or hospital wings after themselves. Some of us, ahem, write books.
But some methods of keeping death anxiety at bay are pricier than others. The debt people go into for Famadihana seems almost like a tax on living without terror. When I put this to Eric, he only partly agrees.
“Honoring the ancestors in this way, it’s a duty, but also a pleasure,” he says, “We believe in God, but we can’t see God. But thanks to the ancestors, we’re here on earth — that’s tangible. So why would we forget them? Why wouldn’t we honor them, touch them?”
I feel a knock in the back of my head — it’s a freshly wrapped corpse on the shoulders of three men, who laugh and say “Azafady!” (“Sorry!”). Cadavers are being lifted into the air all around us.
“Hey white person, take our picture!” cries one grinning man, steadying an ancestor on his shoulder.
“Do you have un stilo?” Eric asks. I pull a pen from my bag, and Lala’s relative proceeds to write the deceased’s name in large black letters on the white silk shroud so that they’ll be able to recognize him in seven years. The next body over needs one too, so they pass it along. When I get it back, I joke, “This is a special pen now.”
“It is!” Eric says, “You will receive a blessing.”
The sun is tumbling toward the hills. It’s unwise to tackle the potholes in the dark, so we say our goodbyes. The family members clasp my hand with both of theirs, make me promise to tell everyone what I saw today. We hurry through the crowd (“Azafady, azafady…”) ducking under newly shrouded ancestors bouncing on the shoulders of their dancing descendants.
I shut the car door and gaze into the rearview mirror, barely able to process what I’ve just seen. Eric starts the engine. The wheels puff clouds of dust into the air behind us, obscuring the family of thousands, dancing with their dead under a setting sun.