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The ritual is called a famadihana,FAMADIHANA , and in MADAGASCAR, a huge island in the Indian Ocean, millions practice it, often in conjunction with their various religious faiths, though not always with the same understanding of what it means to be dead. “Exhumation is a time when families show they love each other,” the Rev. Rakotomamonjy Basile told a small crowd while cautioning them not to think of the dead as having any of the powers of the living.
 
ANTSIRANANA 101029-2
October 29, 2010

[Diocese of Antsiranana - Indian Ocean] Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration
By BARRY BEARAK

AMBOHIMIRARY, Madagascar — With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead.

“It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. “We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Every society has its own customs regarding the deceased, an interplay between those who are and those who were. In many countries, a visit to the cemetery commonly satisfies an urge to be near a buried loved one. Flowers may be placed on the grave. Words may be whispered.

Here in the central highlands of Madagascar, that practice is taken much further. Ancestors are periodically taken from their tombs, and once the dancing stops and the bundled corpses are put on the ground, family members lovingly run their fingers across the skeletal outline protruding through the shrouds. Bones and dust are moved about in an effort to sustain a human shape. Elders tell children about the importance of those lying before them.

The ritual is called a famadihana (pronounced fa-ma-dee-an), and in this nation, a huge island in the Indian Ocean, millions practice it, often in conjunction with their various religious faiths, though not always with the same understanding of what it means to be dead.

Many Malagasy believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.

Mr. Rakotonarivo was in the midst of such a meaningful conversation on a recent afternoon. “I am asking them for good health, and of course if they would help me to accumulate wealth, this is good also,” he said.

But others considered such supplications contrary to their Christian beliefs.

“We do not believe we can communicate with the dead, but we do believe the famadihana strengthens our family between the generations,” said Jean Jacques Ratovoherison, 30, a manager for a technology firm.

He was dancing as vigorously as the rest, occasionally breaking free to make a slow pirouette with a handheld video camera. “The bones of our ancestors are valuable to us and must never become lost in the world,” he said.

The small farming village of Ambohimirary is 20 miles west of the nation’s capital, Antananarivo. Its two-story brick houses have no plumbing; the only light is powered by batteries and generators. Corn and beans grow along gentle slopes of deep red soil. Most who live here share a common ancestry.

It was the widow and eight remaining children of Rakotojoelina Jules — dead for 16 years — who decided it was again time to hold a famadihana. They had long been saving money to build their own crypt, a sign that their branch of the family had prospered and risen in prominence.

The new structure was built a short walk from their house and was more ornate than most. A black wrought-iron gate opened onto a tiled entryway that led to the three levels of shelves where the dead were to be placed. Constructing the white-brick crypt cost $7,000, a forbidding sum in one of the world’s poorest countries.

The ceremony was certainly overdue. It usually occurs every five or seven years. In Ambohimirary, the tomb had been sealed since 1998.

But expense was a concern. Each branch of the family ordinarily invites dozens, if not hundreds of people, and tradition calls for guests to be fed fine meals that include meat. Musicians had to be hired. New clothes were needed for the living, additional shrouds for the dead. Then, too, with some corpses being moved to a new crypt, it seemed only right to renovate the old tomb so that the importance of its remaining occupants did not seem diminished.

Some in the family wanted nothing to do with it. “It’s a sheer waste of money,” said Randriamananjara Rindra, a taxi driver whose Protestant sect discouraged participation in a famadihana. “Besides, there is no relationship between the living and the dead. When you die, you’re gone.”

But Mr. Rakotojoelina’s descendants persisted and proposed a date. Other branches of the family agreed to proceed but only, as tradition dictated, once an astrologer was consulted.

So the timing awaited approval from Rakoto Mandimby, the local astrologer, or mpanandro, whose multiple skills included farming, faith-healing, performing circumcisions and observing the phases of the moon.

“I inherited my powers from my father, and he got them directly from God,” he explained, holding the lapels of his threadbare jacket.

As guests were served an ample lunch, Mr. Mandimby stood on a high perch in the hilly ground, happily flooding himself with homemade rum. Finally, with the sun at a satisfactory angle, he signaled the ritual’s start.

Each branch of the family left their homes, strolling behind their own corps of musicians along a path the mpanandro specified through the clumps of a harvested bean field.

Finally, elders with flashlights and candles entered the musty tomb, squinting in the dim light, trying to be sure who was who among the dead. Names had been written on the shrouds but the ink had faded.

As each body was brought out, encased in soiled white shrouds and mats of woven straw, there was the shouting of a name and a new eruption of excitement. Tears were discouraged, and the few people who did weep quickly mopped their eyes.

Most of the bodies were returned to the old crypt within a few hours. But the four corpses set aside for the new tomb were brought home for two more days of celebration, including a Mass said by the family’s Roman Catholic priest.

“Exhumation is a time when families show they love each other,” the Rev. Rakotomamonjy Basile told a small crowd while cautioning them not to think of the dead as having any of the powers of the living.

Rakotonirina Armand, head of yet another offshoot of the family, shrugged off the priest’s words. Death was not like a light going forever dark, he said. The dead can reach the living, their voices inserted in dreams or riding in the wind.

During the famadihana, Mr. Rakotonirina danced with the bones of Gabriel, his father; Claire, his mother; Andriamatoanirainy, his grandfather; and Jean Baptiste, his uncle.

“We made them very happy,” he said. “They told me.”