The Marina ethnic tribe, living in the rolling hills of Madagascar’s central highlands, ritually exhumes the remains of their ancestors for a celebration-cum-family reunion, known as Famadihana. The reburial ceremony, also known as the turning of the bones, is a festival celebrated about every seven years after the first burial. During the festival, the family crypts are opened up and the remains of dead ancestors are solemnly brought out and placed on reed mats to be re-wrapped in a new shroud.
After the re-wrapping, the people dance with the remains of the corpse around the tomb to live music of trumpets, drums and Malagasy flutes called Sodina, after which the dead is turned upside down and reburied, along with the gifts of cigarettes and alcohol or perfumes and lipsticks, wishing to close the cycle of life and death. As a part of the celebration, animals are sacrificed by the host and the meat is distributed to the guests and the members of the host family.
The typical tombs of the Merina ethnic group are strangely built, partially hidden below the ground level, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk cloth. The celebration ends before nightfall, as the Merina tribe believes that the sun is the source of their energy and they are scared of the negative energy and evil power that the night brings. They hold their ancestors in high esteem, as they believe that people are made from the bodies of the ancestors.
They strongly believe that the spirit of the dead finally joins the world of the ancestors only after the body is totally decomposed, which may take many years. However, unless the body of the dead is decomposed completely, the spirit of the dead does not leave the body permanently and are able to communicate with the living. Nevertheless, until they are gone forever, they shower their affection, love and blessings to the descendants through the Famadihana festival.
For the Merina tribe, Famadihana is a day to show love and attachment to the family and it is the day, when the extended families get together and celebrate kinship wholeheartedly The practice of the secondary burial probably emerged in the 1820s after the repatriation of soldiers’ remains from far away. The festival also regained popularity during tomb transfers when tombs started to be rebuilt in stone with the introduction of the kiln.
However, in recent times, due to the crazily increasing expenditure to make elaborate arrangements for the lavish meals for the guests and new clothes for the living as well as the dead, the practice of Famadihana is on the decline.
Apart from that, in November 2917, the traditional practice of Famadihana was banned in Madagascar, as it was feared that the ceremony has helped to spread an outbreak of pneumonic plague that has caused the premature death of more than 120 in the African island of Madagascar. In fact, if the body of a person died of pneumonic plague is subsequently brought out from the tomb for performing Famadihana, the bacteria in the body can still be transmitted and contaminate anybody, who handles the body.