Famadihana: a second burial to honor the ancestors.

Thursday, 22 July 2021
Famadihana, the Malagasy burial custom, is most widely practised in the central highlands of Madagascar. Famadihana, the Malagasy burial custom, is most widely practised in the central highlands of Madagascar. Camilo Leon Quijano

Thanks to its various origins, ranging from Southeast Asia to East Africa, Madagascar has become the melting pot of many diverse cultures. Today, each region has its own customs and traditions making the cultural diversity of Madagascar. The Famadihana – or exhumation – is, for example, commonly practiced by the people dwelling in the highlands of Madagascar.

Practicing Famadihana as a tribute to ancestors.

Every seven or nine years, traditional Malagasy family members reunite to celebrate the famadihana which literally means “the turning of the ancestors’ bodies”. Like any typical family reunion, it is an occasion for relatives to meet again and spend time with their loved ones, both alive and deceased. The famadihana has long played an inextricably link between the world of the living and the dead. For Malagasy people, practicing exhumation is a way to show respect to their ancestors and to honor them.

Historically, the Malagasy burial custom famadihana emerged in the 1820s from the repatriation of soldiers’ remains and from ceremonies of tomb-to-tomb transfer as kin started to build new sepulchers made of stone (Pier M. Larson, 2001). The famadihana is commonly found among the Merina Malagasy whose entire way of life (and death) is based on kinship.

In the ancient times, the day after someone’s death, the dead body was buried temporarily, usually in a single grave. After at least two years, the corpse is exhumed and given another burial in which it is entombed in the family burial place (Susan Mc George, 1974). This second burial has been made one of the biggest ceremonies in the highlands of Madagascar after wedding. The second burial was celebrated with a huge family gathering around a big feast.

How the ceremony is organized and celebrated.

A few months before the D-day, relatives, whose deceased ancestors share the same tomb start discussing about the plans and the dates of the ceremony, which often fall between July and September. Just like a wedding ceremony, practicing a second burial takes time to prepare, consumes energy and costs a lot of money.

During the ceremony, neighbors and locals are invited to join the family – or the “tompon-draharaha” – and share with them what is called “vary be menaka” (sometimes spelt varibemenaka), a meal that is composed of rice and pork or beef. After that, the family proceeds to the “Famonosana”, or “the wrapping ritual” along which music and dance. Once the bodies are removed and neatly wrapped with new shrouds, festivities keep going and the attendees dance while holding the newly wrapped dead bodies of their ancestors or family members.

Over the last few decades, more people in the highlands have gone reluctant about practicing famadihana for many reasons including religion and financial issues.

Sources: “Austronesian Mortuary Ritual in History: Transformations of Secondary Burial (Famadihana) in Highland Madagascar”, Pier M. Larson, Ethnohistory (2001) / “Imerina Famadihana as a secondary burial”, Susan Mc George, 1974 / The culture trip.

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