In This Joyous Malagasy Ceremony, The Living Literally Dance With The Dead

The Malagasy tribe of Madagascar holds unique beliefs about the afterlife and the mourning process. These beliefs are displayed in the strange and beautiful ceremony, famadihana, or "turning of the bones." This is no funeral - it's one of the most beautifully bizarre death rituals from around the world. It brings families together to celebrate the dead, respecting their legacy and renewing memories.

Approximately every seven years, dead family members are dug up, cleaned, and dressed in new expensive silks. They are then remembered and celebrated in a party for the dead for days. They dance with their still-living relatives and are reburied with lavish gifts. While the Malagasy death customs are unusual, they signify a special and intimate relationship between generations of family, living or dead.

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • They Believe That The Dead Are Not Gone If Their Body Is Still Here

    The "turning of the bones" ceremony is based on the belief that the souls of one's ancestors do not leave this world until their bodies have completely decomposed, bones and all. This is why during the famadihana, family members talk to their deceased relatives about the daily happenings and recent events in their lives.

  • Grief Is Not Allowed

    Grief Is Not Allowed
    Photo: bass_nroll / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The famadihana festival is wholly celebratory. Bands play nonstop joyful music and children and adults dance with the bodies of their ancestors. In fact, no grief at all should be shown at this event. It is seen more as a reunion and a chance for family connection than a repeated funeral. 

  • The Dead Are Reburied Upside Down

    The Dead Are Reburied Upside Down
    Photo: NH53 / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    When the festival ends, the remains are wrapped in new fine silks and reburied, but they are buried facing down. This is meant to represent the end of the cycle of life and death. Thus, the ritual is called the "turning of the bones." 

  • The Festival Is Held Once Every Seven Years And Usually Lasts Two Days

    The Festival Is Held Once Every Seven Years And Usually Lasts Two Days
    Photo: NH53 / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Famadihana occurs approximately every seven years with never-ending music with live bands, rigorous dancing, and extravagant feasting. The festival is usually two days, though it can last for a week.  

  • Much More Money Is Spent On The Dead Than The Living

    Much More Money Is Spent On The Dead Than The Living
    Photo: hobgadlng / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The Malagasy people value the home of the afterlife far more than the houses of this world. Tombs are often more expensive than Malagasy houses, and the construction of their tombs is typically the greatest expense in their lives. 

  • Burial Shrouds Are Used As Fertility Treatments

    Burial Shrouds Are Used As Fertility Treatments
    Photo: chronowizard / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The wrapping ceremony of the dead is also associated with the creation of life. Women who are having trouble conceiving will often take pieces of the old shroud of an ancestor and sleep with it under their mattress as a charm of fertility.