A Travellerspoint blog

Burial& Exhumation customs of the Malagasy people,Madagascar

Famadihana : Turning and washing of the Bones , Madagascar....................................................Ramdas A. Iyer, New Jersey



From the embalmed body in a funeral home in modern day America to an early Neanderthal burial site like La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France from 50,000 years ago, humans have always taken care of their departed in unique ways. As world travelers, some of us are fascinated by Egyptian pyramids, Roman catacombs and the magnificent tombs built for Ming emperors in China; sometimes not necessarily for the beauty of the edifices but for the cultural practices of such burials that led to such monuments.

While traveling to distant lands and visiting old cultures, which hang precariously from the onslaught of modernity, I have observed many strange funeral customs. These customs stem from ancient religions that allows people to know about and communicate with supernatural beings—such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Religion often serves to help people cope with the death of relatives and friends, and it figures prominently in most funeral ceremonies
My previous articles on the funeral practices of the Dogon of Mali, the Taroja of Sulawesi, Zoarastrians of Iran and those along the Ganges river in India have been well received by my readers. Having returned recently from Madagascar I wanted to share some interesting customs and practices that have their origins in Indonesia, from where the original populating members arrived from around 1000 AD. These practices along with those of the African Bantu who arrived much later define the cultural landscape of Madagascar.

A firm belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead constitutes the most basic of all traditional beliefs and the foundation for Malagasy religious and social values. All the Malagasy peoples have traditionally accepted the existence of a supreme God, known commonly as Zanahary (Creator) or Andriamanitra (Sweet, or Fragrant, Lord). The dead have been conceived as playing the role of intermediary between this supreme God and humankind and are viewed as having the power to affect the fortunes of the living for good or evil. The dead are sometimes described as "gods on earth," who are considered the most important and authoritative members of the family, intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. At the same time, the razana (best defined as "ancestors") are the sources from which the life force flows and the creators of Malagasy customs and ways of life. The living are merely temporary extensions of the dead. Great hardship or trouble can result if the dead are offended or neglected.
The burial tomb, a prominent part of the island landscape in all regions, is the primary link between the living and the dead among the Malagasy. It is built with great care and expense, reflecting the privileged position of the dead, and is often more costly and substantial than the houses of the living. The land upon which a family tomb is situated--tanindrazana (land of the ancestors)--is inalienable, and social and economic practices are designed to guarantee that tomb lands are kept within the family.
Unlike cultural anthropologists who visit places like Madagascar armed with knowledge of unique burial practices there, I in turn simply stumbled upon these fascinating practices despite the main purpose of my visit being that of observing wildlife and natural history. As a result, my attention was constantly diverted towards observing the different ethnic groups as I traveled; the Merina and Betselio of the central highlands, the coastal Betsimaraka and Vezo people and the south western Sakalava and Mahafaly tribes. In this article I will attempt to share the different funeral customs of the six tribes mentioned above along with photographs that will help the reader appreciate these ancient customs.

The Six Tribes that I met & their Customs:


Of the 18 distinct groups, the Merina originally came from Indonesia, which is still reflected by their facial features. This tribe, which is numerically the largest, lives in and round the highlands of the capital Antananarivo. Historically, Merina dominated the country until it was declared French colony in 1882 ( until 1958). They were mainly involved in slave trade in the early 19th century. What remained from their long history is the splitting of their society in three classes: The Andriana (nobles), Hova (free men) and Andevo (slaves). Anthropologists have described the Merina as living, in effect, in two localities: the place where one happens to work and keep one's household, and the tanindrazana, a locality of much deeper sentimental significance, the spiritual center where the family tomb is located. The two are usually separated by a considerable distance. Among some groups, whether one decides to be buried in the tombs of the father's or mother's family determines individual descent-group allegiance. The tombs of the various peoples around the island differ somewhat in form. Merina tombs tend to be solid, stone structures, built partially underground, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds.
The traditional tombs of the Mahafaly of the southwest desert region were built of stone but surmounted by intricately carved wooden posts depicting human and animal figures. More recent Mahafaly tombs, particularly those built by rich families, are often made of concrete, with glass windows, brightly painted designs and often remarkable depictions of airplanes, taxicabs, or other modern paraphernalia mounted on the roof. The graves are decorated with innumerable zebu horns and small wood carvings. Many families go in debt to be able to build a pompous grave for their relatives.

The Sakalava descend from the African Bantu and therefore very different from the other Asiatic tribes. The Sakalava were the dominating tribe for a long time ( until Merina dominance began in the 1820s )who sold slaves to Europe in exchange for weapons and other articles of value. Even today they are the second biggest tribe of Madagascar. Every seven years, Sakalava families celebrate male circumcision ceremonies similar to Bantu traditions. What is unusual is that grandfathers to eat their grandson’s cut foreskin after the event. They typically inter their dead in rock caves or rock caves, which are used to store the remains of dead Sakalava kings. Periodically, the Sakalava bring the mortal remains into the living’s circle during a ceremony called Fitampoha. They wash the remains in the river and return them into Doany thereafter. Even today Sakalava still use Trombas ( mediums): Trombas are persons, who get into some kind of trance and thereby experience the ghost of an ancestor, who speaks through them to the others. Not too long ago, it was the custom of the Sakalava people living around the Morondava River on the west coast to decorate their tombs with carvings showing explicit sexual activity. These were meant to illustrate the life-giving force, or fertility, of the ancestors.

Since the Sakalava tribes control the areas around World heritage site of Tsingy Bemaraha, they still will not allow Merina highlanders, their traditional enemies from visiting the Tsingy for the fear of displeasing their ancestors who fought them. I was told that special permission had to be received from the departed spirits through magic and mediums to obtain such a permission. I remember when I was in the highlands of Flores, Indonesia visiting a remote mountain settlement, Wae Reabo, the village head had to do a prayer to his ancestors in order receive me into the village.

Betsimisaraka people live along the east coast, most of them make their living from fishing in the Indian ocean and Canal des Pangalanes (The Canal des Pangalanes is one of the quiet wonders of Madagascar, a collection of natural and artificial waterways that stretches over 645km along the east coast, built by the French colonists) . They’re one of the biggest tribes of Madagascar and consist of many different smaller sub-groups (similar to Sakalava).
If Betsimisaraka die, they use pirogues as coffins ( like Viking nobles) and place those not far from the beach under small roofs. Zebu sacrifices play another important role in Betsimisaraka life. Fisokonas – wooden stakes, embellished with carved patterns and cattle horns are planted on the ground and sprinkled with sacrificed Zebu blood. They then call the ancestors through the fisokana and beg for succor or counsel.

The Bara people who dominate another large area are an important tribe of cattle farmers around the city of Ihosy, South Madagascar. They descend from African Bantu people. Their most famous tradition is that boys who want to marry will have to steal a Zebu beforehand to prove to the girl’s parents their courage and pay the cattle as dowry for their future wife. This nowadays leads to several conflicts between the people of the South – and often leads to the death of the cattle thieves.
When Bara die, they are buried in natural caves and covered with a stone cairn of neatly arranged granite. The bereaved cut their hair to express their mourning. Bara see the spirits of dead people as danger, so it can happen that a whole village moves to a new locality to save their lives.

The Vezo originally came from East Africa across the Mozambique channel. They are half nomadic fishermen in Southern Madagascar, in the areas between Toliara Intampolo, Morondava and Mahajanga. With their self-made small mangrove wood pirogues they ride the angry sea swells of the west coast to catch fish and other sea food. Even today they hunt with nets, spears and traps, because they don’t have money for modern equipment. Funerals of Vezo people take place in courtyards inside the forests, far away from their villages.

The Betsileo people are specialists in terraced rice field farming and are well known for their traditional exhumation of their dead, which is called Famadihana. This tradition is also practiced by the Merina living in the highlands who are closely related to the Betsileo people. ( I noticed that the Betseleo are a slightly mixed people of the Asiatic Merina and the Bara people of African extraction). Among the Merina and Betsileo the custom of famadihana ("placing" or the "turning" of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead. This ceremony occurs either because a person's remains are taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb or simply to remove the remains from a tomb in order to re.wrap the remains in new silken shrouds. These ceremonies incur immense expenses of providing food & shelter for a large number of relatives and guests. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so. The ceremony is presided over by an astrologer, but the chief participants are the close relatives of those persons whose remains are being moved or re wrapped. In this regard, the famadihana resembles in spirit a family reunion or the more austere ancestral ceremonies of China and Korea, where the spirits of ancestors are invited to a feast given by members of a family or lineage, rather than the funerals of the West, which are "final endings."

The Famadihana or "Turning of the Bones:" ceremony

The Malagasy people have built a way of life around death – during the dry winter months, famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased.
Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities. In the Malagasy culture, the turning of the bones is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life.
The famadihana custom appears to be an adaptation of pre modern double funeral customs from Southeast Asia as seen in Bali, Sulawesi, Sumba and other islands.. The custom 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. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations.
The practice of famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated. Early missionaries discouraged the practice and Evangelical Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice in increasing numbers. The Catholic Church, however, no longer objects to the practice because it regards famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious. As one Malagasy man explained to the BBC, "It's important because it's our way of respecting the dead. It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.


April Holloway in her blog in Ancient-origins says the ceremony is an evocation of being together again, so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But most importantly, she says, famadihana is an act of love.
As one foreigner who witnessed the ceremony described, “I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. Death is not a sad occasion for many Malagash, but a time for celebrating. It is believed that the ancestors, like everyone, appreciate a really good party, especially one held in their honor.

Family members come from far and wide to attend the famadihana, sometimes traveling entire days on foot to attend the two-day festivities. When everyone has gathered, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb or crypt and wrapped in straw floor mats. Groups of people heave the corpses above their heads and carry them off, before laying them side-by-side on the ground to be cleaned and dressed. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses and the bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments. Women who are having trouble conceiving will take fragments of an ancestor's old shroud and place them under their mattresses (or even eat them) to induce pregnancy. Following the dressing of the deceased, a great party is held with music, dancing, and a huge feast among the villagers. As a band plays at the lively event, family members dance with the bodies. For some, it’s a chance to pass family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s a time to remember and tell stories of the dead.
When the festival ends, the bodies must be returned to the tomb as the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon. They are re-buried alongside gifts of money and alcohol and placed upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. After a final ritual cleaning, the tomb is immediately closed - a powerful and emotional moment, embodying all the spiritual richness of the previous days' celebrations.

Brad Bernard writes an interesting first hand essay in the New York Times about a famahadina he attends :

"The village elder smiles at me curiously, his leathery hands nudge a plastic mouthwash bottle of homemade rum toward me. I cringe as the amber liquid burns my throat and the fumes fill my nasal cavity, temporarily numbing my anxiety about what comes next. The weathered shovel I hold creaks with my tightening grip. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. From here, I go with the village down the lonely path to dig up his family’s corpses from the cemetery, some still ‘wet,’ and parade them around town. When I first heard about this seemingly macabre ceremony in the highlands of Madagascar, I was immediately intrigued. I’m not sure what dark fascination I have with a ceremony called Famadihana, or Turning of the Bones, where local villagers exhume the skeletons of their elders to dance with. I search unsuccessfully for a justifiable motive. Perhaps I was seeking a simple thrill or maybe voyeurism fuels my morbid fixation on this phenomenon.
Earlier that morning, on our way to the ceremony, Njara, my college-educated driver, tells me, “They have never allowed a white person to attend this ceremony and emotions are high for this event. We will need to be very delicate in our approach so we don’t incite hostilities.” The look of concern in his eyes stirs my inner doubt. “…they say that the dead can sometimes cross back over into the living world. And during this ceremony, the souls of their ancestors can rejoin the living to indulge once again in worldly desires. It is so taboo for people our age, who prefer to avoid black magic, so the practice is dying out.” He says. “Anyways, this ceremony only occurs every seven years and is restricted to the immediate family so they may not let us attend.” We buy homemade “Rhum” to give them as a token of appreciation in the hopes they’ll let us attend.

We pull off the road at a tiny village. The whole town, all related in some way, is assembled outside the largest of the two-story mud-brick shacks, chanting in anticipation of the procession from the city. Njara announces that the elders have asked to meet me. My heart beats wildly as I focus intently on portraying respectfulness; my hands shake noticeably as I humbly offer the gifts. The elders look me over and the debate quickly becomes heated. The patriarch of the village, an old man with distinguished wrinkles and clouded eyes, darts toward me, snaps up the rum from my hands and slips into the dark entry of the house. I’m in. The family members slowly overcome their curiosity and introduce themselves.
We march down the pitted cattle path away from town.. We await the sign from the astrologer that the fabric between both worlds is thin enough that the exhumation can begin. A growing curiosity swells around me as more and more villagers seek out Njara to ask him questions about me. The old man approaches me showing deep concern. He tells Njara that I appear remorseful which is sending the wrong signals and arousing suspicion. He tells me I should act happy and joyous; that this is a celebratory event and I look like I am attending a funeral. I fear my uninformed presence is a mockery to the family The crowd dances tirelessly to the clumsy yet hypnotic melody of the band, a ragtag group of eight men swaggering around in matching uniforms. Their dented and tarnished brass instruments are reminiscent of the faded splendor of the long abandoned French ‘culturalization’ of natives on this island. A vendor has wheeled her wooden cart and tattered umbrella from far away to sell sodas and cigarettes.

The crowd goes silent. Suddenly, trumpets sound an impending climax. The old man leaps on top of the family tomb and announces the digging will begin. The crowd ignites, encircling the tomb, chanting rhythmically. The men shovel furiously. The old man pushes his relatives aside and hands me a shovel, insisting I participate.Digging up corpses from the cemetery in Madagascar
Once the hole is big enough, the door to the underworld is smashed and collapses into pieces. The crowd gasps collectively. I back away gingerly. The old man soon finds me, grabbing my hand and insisting I go inside with him. I glance at Njara, seeking permission. He nods suspiciously but issues me grave warning, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the bodies.” We crawl on hands and knees through the tiny opening of the catacomb to a small room and find mummies on stone benches with their caramelized bones poking through holes in their garments. Flickering candlelight illuminates the yellow stains from seeping body fluids. A sour, earthy smell of decay permeates the tiny room. The old man introduces me to each of his ancestors by name as he pats the dust from their corpses. He insists I feel the decaying body of his mother on my right who has just died a few weeks ago. I place my hand on her chest and close my eyes as he begins to chant. The hair on my neck stands up as a strange feeling engulfs me, dizzy and scared; I lunge toward the fresh air to avoid fainting.
One by one, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb and wrapped in straw floor mats like burritos. With several pushes, a group heaves a corpse above their heads and carries it off. They are laid side-by-side on the flat ground to be cleaned and dressed, the names are written in faded black marker to tell them apart. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses like crispy skin from chicken wings to avoid taking too much flesh. The bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments and individually whisked off by awaiting family members. The corpses are cleaned and dressed in fresh silk garments
The same corpse I touched in the crypt is now in her granddaughter’s arms, dancing in circles. She holds her grandmother delicately, crying tears of happiness and talking about her progress in school. In that moment, I heard a voice answer the granddaughter’s call that I still cannot explain. To this day, I dream of that moment. That voice is hard to forget. My heart sinks as I realize how real this is to her. She passes the mummy to the hands of an awaiting woman who begins to cry with happiness. The young girl refocuses her attention on a game her friends are playing and is soon laughing and joking again.
As the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon, the bodies are once again laid to rest but upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. The young always return home to honor their origins here at this earthen hill that embodies their ancestry. I feel a deep connection with this family now that only comes from sharing the most intimate experiences. I am eternally grateful to them for opening their doors and my eyes to such a beautiful practice. It is the most amazing way of respecting the dead that I have ever experienced. I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. My enlightenment feels bittersweet as I realize my own aversions still prevent me from wanting to visit my loved ones at their graves and the void this creates in my life. I don’t have the stomach for facing death. I stubbornly prefer to bury and forget; somehow thinking this will satisfy desire to remember the way they were. I’ve found more happiness in death than I could have ever imagined."

Other societies that wash their ancestor's bones

While doing my research on this subject, I was quite amazed at how these practices are common in many countries in Asia and South America.

Campeche, Mexico

:During Hanal Pixan in Pomuch, Mexico, decedents honor the dead through the annual ritual of “washing” or brushing the bones of dead loved ones with a piece of cloth or small brush. The local custom is for family members to exhume the skeletons of the deceased after they have been buried for three years, when the flesh has turned to dust, and carefully clean the bones. Once they have been cleaned, the bones are placed in an open wooden box that has been lined with embroidered or painted linens. These boxes are then displayed in small cement niches in the graveyard. Every year, families return to the graveyard to re-wash the bones of their relatives, change the linens, and leave offerings of fresh flowers and lit candles. Although perpetuating an unusual practice, the people of Pomuch take much pride in caring for and presenting the bones of their ancestors. Pomuch is the only town in Mexico to still honor this tradition.

Sulawesi , Indonesia

Prior to the Dutch colonization of this area in the 20th century, the Toraja people lived in remote villages without roads connecting one to the other. Due to the difficulty of treading terrain in this mountainous region, people were terrified to journey too far in fears that their body could not be returned to their birthplace in the event of their demise. The Toraja’s beliefs state that if the body is not returned to the corpse’s village of birth, the soul will never reach Puya and will forever wander around in limbo, confused by their unfamiliar surroundings. In order to aid in transporting corpses, Shamans would be called upon to temporarily raise the dead so that they could walk back to their birthplace on their own in order to attend their funeral and begin their journey to Puya. Every August, a ritual known as Ma’nene or “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses” takes place. Corpse cleaning, grooming and redressing during Ma’nene. During this time, families exhume the bodies of deceased relatives in order to wash them, groom them, change their clothes and repair their coffins. The bodies are taken to the place of their death, then back to their grave in the village of origin. Often the deceased are paraded around the village in straight lines during the journey in order to observe the living.

This is done out of respect to the ‘Hyang’, unseen spiritual entities with supernatural powers who reside in mountains, hills and volcanoes and may ==only move in straight lines.
Luzon, Philippines:== Bogwa” is the practice of exhuming the bones of the dead, cleaning, rewrapping and returning them to the grave or “lubuk. The Ifugao is one of the ethnic groups in the Cordillera region of the Philippines that practice this tradition of exhuming their dead usually after a year or more depending on the desire and necessity. The Ifugaos traditionally see it as a family responsibility towards the deceased loved one and a necessity for those left behind in order to prosper and live at peace with the spirits of their departed. With all the animals offered to appease the spirits of the dead, the bogwa is one of the most expensive native rituals next to a wedding. Three days of feasting rather than mourning is expected and an open invitation is extended to everyone within or outside the community. Performing bogwa shows not only the love and care to a family member even though he died several years ago but also the concern, love, care and hope for prosperous years for the living ones.


Changmai, Thailand:

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders. It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general. Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration. Songkran also has a more somber and sober side. It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will remove the bones of ancestors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.
Contact: [email protected]

Some information extracted from different sources.
Area handbook-US Army on Madagascar
New York Times: Brad Bernard 2010 article
Huffington post: Campeche photos: Janelle Pietrzak A world traveling documentary and fine art photographer.
Photos other than by Ramdas Iyer are taken from Web sources.
This is a not for profit blog





Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:19 Archived in Madagascar Tagged madagascar burial silk antananarivo merina bara rhum betseleo betsimaraka vezo mahafaly famadihana malagasy shrouds bantu

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


This is wonderful and I hope to use it for our study abroad "Malagasy culture" classes.
I found a mistake. Only one. East coast should be West coast in the paragraph about the Vezo. people.
Thanks for writing this-its very informative and even I learned a lot!!
Pat Chapple Wright
Professor of Anthropology, Stony Brook University

by Ramdas Iyer

Dr. Wright:
It is truly a wonderful compliment, especially from you. The beautiful Vezo girl perhaps distracted me and altered my orientation.


Ramdas Iyer

by Ramdas Iyer

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.