Madagascar: Dancing with dead bodies for Famadihana

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Madagascar, southeastern coast of Africa: Famadihana is a funerary tradition of the Malagasy people in Madagascar. In this custom, people dance to live music while carrying the dead bodies over their heads and go around the tomb before returning the corpses to the family tomb. They believe in celebrating the life lived by the dead person.

During this ceremony, known as the turning of the bones, people bring forth the bodies of their ancestors from the family crypts, rewrap the corpses in fresh cloth, and rewrite their names on the cloth so they will always be remembered.

Basics of the custom of dead bodies:

In Madagascar, this became a regular ritual, usually once every five to seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations, as it is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body’s complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies, which may take many years.

Purpose of Famadihana ceremony:

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have built a way of life around death. They perform a ritual to celebrate and reconnect with the deceased.

During this ceremony, Malagasy people spend time with their loved ones, both living and deceased. The Malagasy celebrate this event so that new family members can meet their ancestors and memories can be shared and never forgotten.

Madagascar traditional body turning ceremony. Photo Credit: Youtube
Madagascar traditional body turning ceremony. Photo Credit: Youtube

The day before the ceremony:

Relatives and family members, many of whom haven’t seen each other since the last Famadihana, come together to introduce new members (mainly sons and daughters-in-law).

For some, Famadihana is the only opportunity in which relatives can see their family. It is a celebration that strengthens family relationships as well as local networks.

Famadihana is a time when Malagasy children can meet their ancestors. The night is filled with discussion, music, drink and the preparation of the next day’s meal. The men of the family are in charge of killing the animals and preparing the meat. Offal is prepared and served with rice as dinner for family members, but the lungs are reserved especially for the sons-in-law.

Series of ceremony- Famadihana:

When guests arrive for Famahanana, they give rice and money to the organizers, or “Tompon-Draharaha”. The amount of the money and the quantity of rice is recorded in what is known as “atero ka alao”, literally meaning “to give something and receive it back”.

Once every five or seven years, a family has a celebration at their ancestral crypt. The ceremony includes a series of celebrations, which are written below-

  • The first thing that occurs is the bodies are removed from the tomb and cleaned; the old garments are replaced with new silk garments.
  • Bodies are sprayed with wine or perfume.
  • Women who are having trouble getting pregnant will take fragments of an old shroud from an ancestor and place them under their mattress to induce pregnancy.
  • Once the deceased has been dressed, there is a festival with a live band, and the family members will dance to music with the bodies of their ancestors.
  • It is a chance for the living to pass family news to the dead and ask for their blessings.
  • The ceremony consists of two-day festivities, and family members will sometimes even travel days on foot to attend.

When all the guests have eaten, the hosting family prepares the party to visit the tomb. As a celebration of life and parenthood, people wear their best outfits. A group of musicians playing trumpets, drums, and Malagasy flutes called “sodina” accompany the party and follow them from the village to the tomb.

Afterwards, the end of the ceremony:

  1. Once stories of the dead are finished being told, and the festivities have commenced, the bodies are returned to the tombs. They are re-buried with gifts of money and alcohol. The bodies are removed and placed on reed mats.
  2. The bodies are placed upside-down to close the cycle of life and death, and after a final cleaning, the tomb is closed to end the previous celebrations.
  3. At this point, people can place something the person liked when he or she was alive in the new sheets. For men, it may be cigarettes or alcohol for women, perfumes or lipsticks. For children, people commonly place sweets.
  4. This ritual practised by the Malagasy people is very similar to the ritual of Ma’Nene’ performed by the ‘Tana Toraja’ in Indonesia, where they practised “cleaning of the corpses”.

Decline In the practice of Famadihana:

The practice has been attracting criticism, with many calling for it to be stopped. More and more people have abandoned this tradition with the belief that the practice goes against some religions.

The festival is also increasingly more expensive to run, including meals for hundreds of guests and expensive silk to wrap the dead.

Some of the poor do not have a family crypt and will save up money to build one and hold a ceremony for their own ancestors. The bone-turning ceremony is a collective expression of respect and love for the ancestors and is a very unique ritual not seen in other cultures.

Some media outlets have also linked the spread of the plague to Famadihana; the ritual also faces opposition from some Christian organizations.

Ana Allen
Ana Allen
Anna Allen, news writer at Writeups24, is a Harvard graduate with a passion for journalism. With her keen eye for detail and insatiable curiosity, she captures the essence of global stories. Anna's writing informs and delves into cultural nuances. To reach Anna, you can email


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