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Western funeral traditions are notably devoid of physical contact with the dead. When a loved one dies, it's unusual to hear of relatives personally washing, dressing or transporting the body. Once buried or cremated, it's considered desecration to disturb a grave or cremains. Once a corpse is buried, it's accepted that it will be left to decompose on its own terms, without disruption.
When the need arises to exhume a body, many consider it to be an unfortunate shame—for others, it's a complete desecration. The Malagasy people don't see it this way. In a sacred death ritual, ancestors are exhumed every five to seven years. It's an opportunity to visit a loved one's corpse, pay respects, and dance with the dead.
The Malagasy people have a funeral tradition that defies any discomfort with dead bodies. When someone dies, the body will be wrapped in cloth by family members. The name of the deceased will be written on the cloth so that they are remembered. But that's not the last that mourners will see of their deceased loved one.
Similar to taking care of of a gravesite, the Malagasy people return to the bodies of their ancestors at intervals to unwrap corpses, visit and refresh the protective shrouds:
"In Madagascar, death is not forever. The dead enter the realm of the spirits. They live in trees, in animals, in the air. You shouldn’t point with your finger outstretched, we were told. You may offend the spirits floating about, between one world and another."
In the turning of the bones ceremony, known as Famadihana, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed every five to seven years by their family members. Believing that the dead are not reunited with their ancestors until fully decomposed, their descendants hold a ceremony to re-wrap their dead, and re-write their names.
It's no somber affair. The ceremony is cheerful, with singing, dancing and drinking to keep spirits up. Carrying ancestral corpses on their shoulders, the Malagasies dance with the dead. Emotions are a mix of sorrow and celebration. Many are happy to see their loved ones again, others are curious to meet ancestors they never met alive. The more recently deceased are viewed for the first time in a state of decomposition by loved ones.
Refreshing the graves of ancestors is their way of keeping loved ones' memories alive, and showing respect. Families whose deceased ancestors share a tomb will coordinate their wrapping day, and hold the jointly planned event together. Those who were born long after their ancestors passed have the chance to meet them during this ceremony. It's a ritual that connects generations through its respect for those who came before. It also gives the dead a chance to become acquainted with their surroundings:
"Before the corpses are re-interred, they are hoisted up and carried around their tombs several times, amid dancing so they can become familiar with their resting places. It is believed that the dead will roam and terrorize the people afterwards, if they are not familiar with their final abode."
— Michael Alvin, AfroTourism
This connection with history and death is a fairly new tradition, beginning as recently as the 17th century.
Unfortunately, Malagasy Famadihana ceremonies appear to be going extinct. Though the Catholic church no longer objects to this form of memorialization, religious missionaries tried to wipe out the practice, and partially succeeded. Many modern Malagasy now believe the practice is outdated.
Death often follows the Famadihana ceremonies. It is thought that consorting with bodies may spread the plague from the dead to the living. Generally, bodies pose less of a health threat than living ones. But those who died of the plague and were buried can pass the disease to ancestors who exhume them, resulting in massive outbreaks:
"The Malagasy government has issued rules dictating that the bodies of plague victims cannot be buried in tombs that can be reopened. However, local media have reported several instances of such bodies being exhumed covertly, the AFP reported."
—Sara G. Miller, Live Science
Some traditions go by the wayside because of cultural shifts, legislation or interference of colonization. These ancient ceremonial methods of handling remains and memorializing the dead still have lessons to teach us as a society.
In the case of the turning of the bones ceremony, we are reminded to honor our dead loved ones at intervals as we move through grief. Even generations later, there is much to learn from our ancestors. These traditions may seem morbid or distasteful to the death-repulsed person, but they represent healthy attitudes toward nature, remains and the inevitability of death.
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