Famadihada: The Turning of the Dead

September 17, 2016

Five years ago, a teenage boy died in the small Malagasy of Antanambe. He was buried, as is his custom, with all of his relatives, in a small plot cleared from the rain-forest in Verezanantsoro National Park. Here he awaits the decay of his corporeal form, so that he may finally join the spirit world. In the meantime though, he becomes lonely. The song and dance, the strong tradition of love and support that his village offered in life, is absent in death.

In this part of the though, he need not while his time away, forgotten and alone. This is a full moon, and it is the fifth anniversary of his internment. There will be a party for him tonight. Everyone in the will come, some from hundreds of kilometers, and today we will walk with them.

At the graveyard, his remains are dug up, lovingly cleaned, and placed in a shroud. While this process (which can take hours) occurs, his sings and claps, while pouring jet-fuel grade sugar wine over his remains (and into my mouth as well).

Once it is done, the shroud is carefully wrapped in straw mat. A member carries the bundle and sets it at the feet of the closest living relative. This is all done in a ceremony which is simultaneously joyful and respectful. The pouring of “whiskey” over the body (sometimes with a banana leaf funnel) is met with raucous cheers (like you might hear at a college party) while at the same moment, a teenager carefully hands a dusted off vertebrae to be placed in the shroud. The contrast is a trip, beautiful and confounding to my “modern” perspective. It is a keg-stand in a Smithsonian museum.

In this moment, I come face to face with the gravity of what we (our little of Convivians) have done. Vick has tears welling up in her eyes; not sadness for the departed, but gratitude for the warmth with which we were welcomed into this sacred & joyful family event. I, as mentioned, am spinning in chaos, as my perception of reality reorders itself to make this experience as “normal” as it deserves to be. And while the adults are processing these emotions Miles is quietly announcing “I’m bored.” My reality needs to be reconfigured to fit this. For Miles, this is reality. His concept of life and death, of spirits and family, of his precious purpose here, have all been formed from these varied, colorful, and exotic experiences.

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