Dancing with the dead in Madagascar

If you've read GetReligion for any amount of time, you know that context means everything. Circumstances matter, too. And, of course, geography.

I mention all of that in reference to a recent New York Times story on people dancing with the bones of their dead relatives. The story left me with more than a few unanswered questions concerning the religious beliefs of the people involved.

But given the dateline of the story -- Ambohimirary, Madagascar -- I'm more willing to overlook such ghosts than if the same lapses had occurred in a report from Aberdeen, Mississippi.

In reality, lapses may be too strong a word. That suggests weaknesses, when my real complaint is that this 1,150-story proved so compelling in a relatively short amount of space that it left me wanting more. This is one of those stories where I'd urge you -- double urge you -- to read the whole thing before finishing the post.

For those who didn't follow directions, here's the top of the piece:

AMBOHIMIRARY, Madagascar -- With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead.

"It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything," said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. "We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies."

Every society has its own customs regarding the deceased, an interplay between those who are and those who were. In many countries, a visit to the cemetery commonly satisfies an urge to be near a buried loved one. Flowers may be placed on the grave. Words may be whispered.

Here in the central highlands of Madagascar, that practice is taken much further. Ancestors are periodically taken from their tombs, and once the dancing stops and the bundled corpses are put on the ground, family members lovingly run their fingers across the skeletal outline protruding through the shrouds. Bones and dust are moved about in an effort to sustain a human shape. Elders tell children about the importance of those lying before them.

Next, we find out that millions of people on the huge island nation practice the ritual, called a famadihana, "often in conjunction with their various religious faiths."

More of the story:

Many Malagasy believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.

Mr. Rakotonarivo was in the midst of such a meaningful conversation on a recent afternoon. "I am asking them for good health, and of course if they would help me to accumulate wealth, this is good also," he said.

But others considered such supplications contrary to their Christian beliefs.

"We do not believe we can communicate with the dead, but we do believe the famadihana strengthens our family between the generations," said Jean Jacques Ratovoherison, 30, a manager for a technology firm.

As the reader who sent this story link to GetReligion noted, the varied voices and shades of nuance concerning Malagasy people's religious beliefs and ritual practice strengthen this piece. We learn that different people participate in the famadihana for different reasons -- almost like the religious and secular versions of Christmas, it seems.

But the writer never really provides a clear idea of the non-Christian faiths at play and doesn't go into much detail on the Christian beliefs. Yes, the story is remarkable as it is. But as I mentioned earlier, I would love to know more.

Then again, the story does quote a taxi driver "whose Protestant sect discouraged participation in a famadihana." The rest of his family agreed to proceed after an astrologer was consulted:

So the timing awaited approval from Rakoto Mandimby, the local astrologer, or mpanandro, whose multiple skills included farming, faith-healing, performing circumcisions and observing the phases of the moon.

"I inherited my powers from my father, and he got them directly from God," he explained, holding the lapels of his threadbare jacket.

As guests were served an ample lunch, Mr. Mandimby stood on a high perch in the hilly ground, happily flooding himself with homemade rum. Finally, with the sun at a satisfactory angle, he signaled the ritual's start.

Near the end, there's this:

Most of the bodies were returned to the old crypt within a few hours. But the four corpses set aside for the new tomb were brought home for two more days of celebration, including a Mass said by the family's Roman Catholic priest.

"Exhumation is a time when families show they love each other," the Rev. Rakotomamonjy Basile told a small crowd while cautioning them not to think of the dead as having any of the powers of the living.

Rakotonirina Armand, head of yet another offshoot of the family, shrugged off the priest’s words. Death was not like a light going forever dark, he said. The dead can reach the living, their voices inserted in dreams or riding in the wind.

Wow. That's a religion story. End of journalism class, folks. Seriously, sections like those last two are what make this piece so compelling -- and me so reluctant to try to poke holes in it.

What saith you?

If you read the whole thing (one more chance), what did you think? Strengths? And weaknesses?

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