"Famadihana" Faritanin' Antananarivo Travelogue by Norali
Faritanin' Antananarivo Travel Guide: 405 reviews and 1,123 photos
Hmm... probably the most difficult travelogue that I have to build. In fact, I am afraid I can't explain it well so I am delivering here my knowledge of the subject without documentation. If I am well documented, I will be under influence and would deliver infos like in other websites... standardly complete and very impersonal. So, I skip the documentation while writing my own words. After I finish it, I may look for complete websites but no sure I would do it...
+++Except the last one, all pics in this travelogue are from a Famadihana celebration of a Merina family, other than mine, who accepted to be taken on pictures.+++
Famadihana textually means "turning" (of the bones or dead corpses, that means). What may sound "weird" or "scary" to you is anything but abnormal to Merina and Betsileo people. To begin with, some explanation about the meaning of "ancestor", to the Merina tribe.
For Merina people, and Malagasy in general, ancestors are not only the people we physically originate/ descend from. Are included in the ancestors' group, relatives who died. In fact, dead persons are VERY important in Malagasy beliefs. It's an honour to be an ancestor because living relatives use to rely on an ancestor to bless, protect, warn them. Indeed, Malagasy traditional belief is based on Ancestor worship (inheritated from Asian origins). Since we, living family members, use to ask blessing and protection to them, it is normal to honour the ancestors, give them gifts, care of their dead bodies.. For instance, it is still common in rural and palace areas to find a small specific rock near the tomb of a poweful ancestor (namely kings) where people use to stand up (mijoro), ask for blessing and leave gifts (alcohol, honey, sweets, bank notes sometimes) to thank the ancestors in advance.
Thus, Famadihana celebration is another rite to pay tribute to ancestors. Again, since we use to ask them blessings and protection, we do care of their dead bodies too. We do that not only for dead adults but also dead kids since they are ancestors too. For instance, I have a young ancestor. He was 3 or so when he died. I was 16 at that time.
In my family, famadihana uses to occur once in a lifetime (btw, rather say "deathtime"). The rule is returning the bones after seven years of death. Then leaving the dead corpse "alone" for the rest of its life (sorry, its death). In other Merina families, it can be more than once in a lifetime.
Concrete case: My grand-father died in the 1969-70. We never had any Famadihana for him until 1995. Really late famadihana for him. My grand-mother died in 1989 and she had her Famadihana in 1995. Kind of correct.
Believe it or not, ancestors use to talk to the living descendants. It happens very often, for instance, that they suggest to the descendants, in their dreams, that "It's cold in the tomb". In this case, the ancestor (or our conscience, depending on how deep your belief is) warns that it's time to return his bones and change his lambamena. Very probably, the interior of the tomb is wet (of newly dead bodies, of water that may have infiltrated from a tomb that is not looked after). My grand-father who died in 69-70, reminded it so many times to my Mum, some aunts... but they only "returned" him in 1995. Personnally, I would be SCARED of that type of dream. But both my Dad's dad and my Mum's dad were really nice persons so they won't be mean.
Lambamena is, in Malagasy tradition, the silk material that is used to wrap mortal remains ("razana"). Malagasy philosophy considers razana sacred so that he/she deserves silk. When offering condolences to a family, one uses to give money as contribution in Lambamena purchase. Sometimes, the family receives lambamena from closest friends or other family members. This is the best case, of course. Family members have to wrap the newly dead corpse with ALL the lambamenas the family has received. The number of "layers" indicates the popularity of the person (and, sometimes, the wealth of the ones who gave the lambamena :).
For my other grand- father (dad of my mother) who died in 1985, for instance, we received many lambas, from family & his patients (he was a doctor) with whom he had privileged relations. If I recall it well, he had some 7 silk lambas. Also, when he died, many people presented condolences. I think, to be honest, that he was a very good man and none in the family would receive that more respect and would have been more appreciated than him. Usually, 4 days are enough to keep the corpse home and receive the condolences. For him, 7 days were not enough. The eve of the burial day was really hectic. At 11 pm, people were still queueing up to present condolences. The week after burial was busy too. People still came home.
Famadihana and preparations
Now, back to Famadihana. For the Famadihana in 1995, we started organizing very early (like 2 years prior the event). The Famadihana of my ancestors (Dad side) coincided with the building of a new tomb. In the past, my dad's family (my grand-father & descendants) used to share tomb with many families. Not only, the brothers and sisters of my grand-father but also up to 4 generations back. So, the tomb was really crowded. Plus, we had trouble dealing with other families for the respect for the dead corpses, they were not placed according the usual rules & it created trouble within relatives. So we decided to build our own tomb.
When one decides to build either a house either a tomb, one uses to ask for blessing from ancestors and advices from oldest family members. For instance, for the construction of the tomb of my dad side, my other grand-mother (Mum of my mother) helped us a lot in organizing. She knows more than us about what to do. She has more experience of her own tomb, her late husband's family. She suggested us to seek advices from an astrologer, a very important person in Malagasy society.
The astrologer defined the position of the tomb (compared to cardinal points), the time to start the works... but also the best time to return the corpse (with a deadline to insert the corpse in the tomb. I think, it was compared to the sun position). All of that, and many other aspects were defined by the astrologer. Those instructions were carefully followed.
The first construction day is important. Usually, the astrologer is invited to launch it. If I recall it well, the eldest male in the family (amongst the descendants) uses to lay the first stone. Then workers continue. This day is a celebration, some alcohol is poured on the first stone (for the ancestors because we asked for blessing and protection for the construction). The astrologer also defines who would better keep the key of the new tomb. Normally, the oldest male descendant keeps it but for some reason, the astrologer advised to change it. In our case, the key was given to a person, other than the oldest descendant. In fact, without knowing the family, the astrologer felt that the key shouldn't be given to this oldest descendant. An astrologer uses to accurately feel things.
In the meantime, the preparation went on. We started advising extended families about the fact that we were going to open the common tomb, to take out our ancestors. We had to advise the municipality authorities too, not only about the construction of a new tomb but the opening of another existing one. See there the interaction between social event/ project with administration. We launched invitations to the extended family (namely, those who used to share the previous tomb with us) - to friends - to the neighbours. Those people were invited, fed with food for three days, if I recall it well.
Also, we had to fix an arrangement with our parish to celebrate the event. Because our culture is based on ancestor worship, we asked for blessing and protection to ancestors. Because we are christians, we asked for blessing and protection to God too. I know, it's unusual. Indeed, Famadihana is a typical ancestor worship rite but Christianity doesn't exclude it. At least, in Madagascar. See explanation point below.
In case, one has trouble in achieving the construction on time, one has to seek advice from the astrologer. Ask him to check for new best dates in the future. If construction is going OK, we keep the initial dates.
Famadihana: the rite
So, for us, we withdrew the corpses of my grand-father, his wife, some aunt and cousins who were in the previous tomb. For that, municipality authorities were there, declaring the ceremony open, supervising the withdrawal. Then a priest asked for blessing. We put the corpses in woven plaits to have every parts of the corpses together. One plait for each body, except for my grand-parents' that could be put together since they were a couple in their life. For that, we have to respect the rules (parents+young kids together but not two cousins neither two siblings except toddlers that go with parents).
Then, we brought the corpses to a place where we could keep them. Usually, the sons of the dead who carry them to the place. In this case, it was first under the sun, then after some hours, under a tent in my uncle's front garden. We laid them on tables under the tent. Party began. The corpses stayed there for two days. In any time, there should be someone staying behind the dead corpses. Soo, adult descendants used to relay to do that. Since it's a celebration, it was noisy, with music all day... Kids were playing football, cards, dominoes... Adults were either cooking, either preparing for the final day, either partying. Next to the main tent, there were other tents. Under those, tables and chairs lined up. Food for guests were served there. I remembered that it was like a pro catering service. We cooked food from the morning to the evening. In fact, we had some 350 guests (extended family + friends + neigbours). It doesn't include our family (my grand-parents descendants).
In daylight, food for the guests. During the night, family partying with some friends. If neighbours want to join, you have to accept. When a family in a village celebrates Famadihana, one expects noise but then, there isn't any problem since the whole village is invited.
An usual dish for Famadihana is Vary be menaka, "Greasy rice". It's made of rice and fat meat. With 350 persons, we bought one z?bu and one pig. Killed them and cooked them together, normally with garlic and ginger. It is, then, served with rice. We also distributed cake to the guests.
Normally, those diners are accompanied with alcohol (initially, toaka gasy, the local rotgut). Depending on financial situations, families stick to toaka gasy or have whisky. It used to be strong alcohol ? gogo. I think, in my family, it was no alcohol at all or some wine. Needless to say that a famadihana costs a lot to a family.
The second day, we went to the church in the morning, we had our mass to ask blessing and protection for the last day (insertion of the corpses in the new tomb). Then, at noon, Vary be menaka for sure. Then, transfering the corpses in their new lambamenas. In fact, it was basically assembling my grand-father and grand-mother in one lambamena wrap (can be with many layers). Wrapping my cousin's corpse, my aunt's.
The wrapping uses to be the very moment of sadness (esp. for the women who use to cry loudly seeing their father, mother...). In fact, to be honest, I never understood that since you only see ochre muddy parts after decades of decomposition. Well, sometimes, ladies emphasize. :)
When the corpses are wrapped in their new lambamenas, firmly tied up at their neck, bust, hip, knee, ankle levels, they let the corpse on laps of zana-drazana. Zana-drazana (children of the ancestor) are the direct descendants of the dead. For my grand-parents, zana-drazana were my Dad and his bros and sis and their spouses. They took the assembled corpses and laid them on their lap. Tears! tears! For my cousin of 3, no descendants but his mother and brothers took him on their lap. For my aunt, zana-drazana were her widower and orphans.
Since we had to respect a certain timing, the last part was very hectic. Usually, the corpses have to be inserted in the new tomb before dawn. Since, for hygiene and practical reasons, famadihana are planned for the winter and autumn (dry seasons), dawn is at 4.30 pm.
I remembered we nearly run from my uncle's garden to the tomb. We were running out of time. Running with razana is disrespectful, in Malagasy culture. But at same time, we had to insert before 4.30pm.
Finally, we managed to be on time but we skipped the dance around the tomb. Usually, we should have live music with it (see pictures). Musicians plays special music (open-air music) and attendees party near and around the tomb. In another Famadihana of my Mum side, the rule was contouring the tomb seven times before inserting the corpses.
Then after contouring, inserting and placing the corpses in the tomb. For our tomb, my dad's family asked my Mum to arrange the interior. She studied the way to place corpses, for the ones who had Famadihana but also, for the future. She supervised the insertion and placement in the new tomb. Then, we locked the tomb and the key was given to the one who is in charge of it. It is a very important role since if the guy loses the key, we may have trouble in case one of our family members die.
Then, Famadihana is over. Time for after-party works... Cleaning, pushing up furnitures...
Famadihana is a huge celebration. Very socially and spiritually important. For that, one has to be well-prepared for the event, for expenses before considering Famadihana. This is the reason why people prepare it long time ahead (families collect money for 2 years, sometimes). It happens that following a financial downturn, a Famadihana is postponed. In fact, it is an expensive celebration though Merina people are really attached to this traditional event, even if they are really poor.
Something I forgot to tell you about is that, during those two days, zana-drazana use to wear uniforms (Cotton Malabary of same motives and dark pants for men - Shirt/ Blouse/Jumper/Vest with skirts of same flower motives for women - Uniform according to their gender for kids). It is so nice to spot everywhere members of same family. But the it's difficult to distinguish brother A from brother B, esp. if they have same head shape (!).
Soo, to the "catering services" (rice, zebu and pork meat), you must add the costs of the uniforms, the costs of lambamenas. Besides, since Malagasy families tend to be big, sums quickly pile up.
Lately, I read, heard here and there people (economists..) complaining about Famadihana, for it being more important than life in itself. In fact, occidentals are shocked seeing the efforts done for the dead while kids, who are alive, are neglected, kept home for field works instead of sent to school. They are shocked to see families contracting debts to have a decent Famadihana. Well, what should I say? It is important in our society to have this celebration. Ancestor worship is a basis of our culture. Plus, families tend to be creative, search for cheaper ways to do things. Very often, they skip the uniforms. Sometimes, they wait for some time to do it, so to have Famadihana of many ancestors (in same tomb) all together. They tend to stick to one Famadihana in a "deathtime". Even for the lambamena, a friend told me that people now use to buy Chinese silk (cheaper than our Malagasy handwoven silk material).
Those are amongst tremendous efforts to save on money. I guess, and hope, they would never give up this custom. Otherwise, people would lose some spiritual landmark, guiding, faith. We would be lost and "soulless".
Even for Malagasy living abroad, it is still important. Everyhting is done to allow family members who are abroad to attend the ceremony. Very often, Famadihana uses to be the motive of a stay in summer holidays (winter in Mada). One may skip the wedding of a sibling but would not miss the Famadihana of Dad/ Mum/ Sister. Families use to discuss about possible year of Famadihana, regarding financial situation of zana-drazana (the direct descendants of the dead), their availability. All that is well planned in advance, esp. if one builds a new tomb.
Famadihana and Christianity
As bizarre as it may seem, Famadihana is like burial, accepted by Christianity. Yet, nothing is farer from Christianity than "playing with dead corpses". In fact, I was told that this rite was so hugely practised in Merina society that it was difficult for Missionaries to get rid of it when they tried to convert Malagasy people.
I also read that, prior the Christian Missionaries, Muslim migrants, centuries ago, tried to impose Islam in Madagascar but never managed for the reason that they didn't accept traditional Malagasy rites. On one hand, they didn't want to include those Malagasy rites in Islam in Madagascar. And on another hand, Malagasy people never accepted to abandon traditional beliefs. So, they gave up converting Malagasy people.
Afterwards, Missionaries eventually suceeded to implement christianism but had to accept other concepts in it. That was the price to pay. Very clever, they convinced my ancestors to consider Malagasy Zanahary (Creator of the Universe) as similar to ChristianAndriamanitra (God). But then, they had to allow locals to ask for protection from Zanahary - Andriamanitra in a church, for a celebration as Famadihana.
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