Turning the Bones Part I: Dance with the Perfumed Dead

Places have souls; you experience them through their scents. What does Madagascar’s soul smell like? Mango and lemon chutney, recently plucked limes and papaya, fresh green coffee pods, and newly ground cocoa powder. It’s in homemade cinnamon-infused rum mixed with coconut milk (a Punch Coco), carved Rosewood figures rubbed with nutty Baobab oil, wild ylang-ylang growing on the roadside, and fields of vanilla pods warming in the sun. Forget Grasse, it’s Madagascar that is truly blessed by the fragrant gods, and the practice of Famadihana is no different.

Judging from recent movies most folks might suspect that the large island off the east coast of Africa is entirely inhabited by lemurs.

No, I do not want to “Move It, Move It” credit

However, 22 million people call Madagascar home. It is a diverse place both in its ecology (most of which is found nowhere else in the world) and its inhabitants. Recent DNA research revealed that the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy person constitutes an about equal blend of South-east Asian and East African genes, although the genetics of some communities show a predominance of South-east Asian, Chinese, East African, Arab, Indian, or European ancestry. It is a land of immense natural resources as well as, cruelly and paradoxically, immense poverty.  It is a land that finds strength in diversity, family, and the power of forging traditions.


Turning the Bones

Famadihana, (pronounced:fa-ma-dee-an) means turning the bones. While Famadihana is most widely practised in the central highlands of the island, it is not unheard of elsewhere. It is estimated that several million Malagasy citizens participate in at least one Famadihana a year. Tough economic times and Evangelical missionaries have weakened it; though the Catholic church approves of the custom as a cultural ritual.

(Photo: Joao Silva)

That may be because, in many ways, Famadihana is a reconstructed practice. Its history can only be documented to the 17th century, yet it has elements directly linked to South-east Asian and East African traditions going back millennia. Because of its amalgamated nature, it doesn’t represent a codified religious practice in opposition to Christianity. Despite that, Evangelical missionary groups still condemn it as necromancy. Urban elites, wanting to appeal to Western sentiments also disregard it as a peasant custom. While some people do believe in ancestral intercession and adoration, most folks see it as paying respect and a beloved cultural tradition.

(Photo: Joao Silva)

It is a ritual that represents the synthesis of different cultures and coalesces them into one community; taking elements of each component culture and creating something truly Malagasy. Also, like many death rituals in the developing world, there is a strong focus on the sensory experience of the participants. Famadihana should be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelt. It ultimately lifts you out of the mundane and into a powerful emotional state.


The Dead Will Understand

One of the things I love about Famadihana is its pragmatic nature. It should occur every five to seven years, but if there is a new baby or a recent windfall it can be moved up. Likewise, in lean years when the feasting, silk shrouds, perfume, new clothes, and brass band are all a bit too much, it can be postponed. As they say, the dead will understand. Many extended family groups collectively save throughout that 5-7 year gap to afford the custom. Not an easy task when 90% of the island live on $2 a day. Often the local astrology (a mpanandro) will be called to forecast an auspicious time to have a Famadihana begin. Which miraculously always seems to fall right when the matriarch of the family also said it should.


Taste, Touch, Smell

The family will invite from 30-100 or more guests and make as lavish a meal as possible for them. There is the ubiquitous giant cauldron of rice, and many of the dishes reflect the diverse heritage of Madagascar. You have East African flavours in items like roasted pork with shredded cassava and spicy peanut sauce, chicken stewed in a savoury vanilla broth, and curds made from hump-backed Zebu cattle. French baguettes and pastries usually make an appearance. Khimo (a spicy beef and potato stew) that is based on the Indian Keema is served. Likewise, Sambos are the Malagasy version of Samosas, while Nems (fried egg rolls) and Riz Cantonais (Cantonese-style fried rice) are contributions from China. Locally brewed highland beer is a necessity, as is Punch Coco, Orange Fanta, and plenty of bottles of the family’s homemade flavoured rums; which everyone has their particular recipe for production. Let me tell you, you have not lived until you drink homemade vanilla infused rum out of an old jam jar.


New rattan mats are woven, silk shrouds locally called lambas (scarves) are purchased, every family member will be decked out in new clothes, and a band will be hired. One of the essential purchases, however, is the perfume. A fragrant substance will be used to adorn the ladies of the procession as well as the dead. This fragrance may be homemade ylang-ylang and vanilla steeped in coconut oil and white wine, or it may be locally manufactured jasmine cologne or Drakkar Noir from the pharmacy. Rhianna is incredibly popular in Madagascar. While most people can not afford her fragrance line, a trip to the apothecary in the capital, Antananarivo, will get you a pretty decent facsimile of Reb’l Fleur or Rebelle, and I think it is statistically likely that one or two of those bottles made their way to a Famadihana.


The fun begins when the family head to the cemetery and the elders remove the bodies of their relatives from their crypts. The band gives a big TADA!!! Jazz Hands! moment with each body removed. Before you get too appalled by this, remember this is typically done 5-7 years after death. These are dry remains not bodies in open putrefaction. The remains will have their old rattan mat replaced with a freshly woven one and their old death shroud upgraded to a new silk, which is only marred by the sharpie writing on the legs indicating who is who. Before and after the remains are closed up in their bundles, they will then be sprinkled in fragrance.


Scent of Humanity 

Most who study the Famadihana see this as a concession for the scent of the bodies, but I don’t agree. These are dry remains, often just bones with little or no offensive odor to them once removed from the crypt. The bones are not doused in disinfectant they are misted with fragrance. Also, the whole point is the recognition of the dead body. The anointing isn’t masking the corpse it’s celebrating it.The whole family is dressed up and ready to go to the reunion.

The fact that living participants also indulge in the rare luxury of wearing perfume creates an olfactory comradery between the living and the dead. It’s a powerful scent memory connecting love and longing, celebration and grief, the living and the dead all together in one bottle.  It is also hard to view human remains as objects when they are splashed with that zesty citrus number you’re so fond of, so in a way, perfume gives the dead back some of their human relatability.


Dancing with the Dead

With the dressing done it’s time for dancing around the tomb. Famadihana is supposed to be frenetic and joyful. A few tears may be shed, but the other participants will discourage sadness and crying. The bodies are carried as the participants sing and dance. It is a great honor to hold the body and grandpa will probably make the rounds to everyone by the end of the day; either held overhead for all to see or cradled lovingly in the arms. As the bearers dance, they tell the dead about what’s been going on with the living and introduce them to new family members they did not meet on their last “visit.” In many respects, it’s rather mundane.

“Grandpapa, Mrs. Boto repainted her house. You told her to do so years ago, and she finally did!”

“Uncle Marc, this is my youngest Irene, she wasn’t born the last time you visited. Say hello, Irene.”

“Meme, I passed all of my exams!”


Children are encouraged to participate, to touch and look at the bodies as well as ask questions. There is no cop-out “Grampa is sleeping with the angles” sort of explanations. It’s more:

“Meme Jean died many years ago, and these are her bones. This is where Papa comes from so this is where you come from too. One day you will show me love and respect by dancing with me and one day your children will do this for you too.”

Everyone dances, catches up with the dead, plays games, enjoys a good meal and as the sun sets the dead are returned to their crypts, the plaster repaired and the dirt packed. That is until the next dance, but the dancing may not be going on for too much longer.

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[Cover photo by Camilo Leon Quijano]