Most Malagasy burials are simple: the corpse is tied in a white cotton shroud, wrapped in a raffia mat and placed inside a sealed tomb or in a secure dry cave or a cleft in the rocks traditionally reserved for the purpose. That isn’t always the end of the story, though: the people of the central highlands practice famadihana – ritual reburial, or literally “the turning of the bones”, a custom believed to derive from Indonesia.
Roughly every seven years, in the cool, dry austral winter months between July and September, relatives consult an astrologer to determine the right date, and then gather for a two-day family party to celebrate the lives of their ancestors, with hired bands and plenty to eat and drink. They will usually slaughter a zebu, and then the remains of their nearest and dearest – usually labelled with their names – are retrieved from the family tomb to be lovingly unwrapped and tended. The remains are tidied up, given libations of rum or wine and squirts of perfume. The living have a chance to pass on news and make any requests that they feel their ancestors might assist with, from health and wealth to legal disputes and affairs of the heart. Gifts and photos are sometimes tucked in among the bones, before they are carefully rewrapped in fresh white shrouds, made ideally of finely woven silk, and bundled up for safekeeping. Once reclothed, retied and re-labelled with marker pen, the dead are paraded shoulder-high by the dancing crowd, amid further well-lubricated dancing, and accompanied by appropriately long and rambling eulogies, called kabary.
The practice of famadihana, once staunchly rejected by all Madagascar’s churches, is no longer opposed by the Catholic Church, although evangelical Christians and Muslims have no truck with it. More secular Malagasy these days oppose such close communion with the dead on economic grounds: a good reburial party is extraordinarily expensive. But the intangible social benefits are equally huge. As a passing visitor, you can often participate in a famadihana simply by being in the right place at the right time: you’ll be invited. They are intrinsically public gatherings, and occasions for inclusivity and empathy, so respectful visitors are always welcome – though you will be expected to join in properly by buying some rum and showing off your dance moves.