The New York Times featured an interesting read about Famadihana, which is a Madagascan ritual or tradition, practiced more widely by the Malagasy people. In this tradition, the bones and (probably completely petrified by then) remains of the dead ancestors are brought out of their crypts once every 2 to 7 years. The living family members then, in a joyous atmosphere featuring live music, will literally dance with their deceased forebears, honouring them and remembering them and the contributions that they made to their present lives. Fresh silk linen is then used to wrap the bones once again reverently, before placing them back into the crypts. Apparently, the main motive behind this tradition is to give honour to the dead, and to celebrate their connectedness with the living.
A macabre dance? Unthinkable in our modern era? Something leftover from a former time when people just followed tradition blindly? Perhaps. But the little research that I did about this event taught me that the Catholic Church in Madagascar no longer objects to this as she regards this as a purely cultural rather than a religious event. It is the peoples’ way of respecting the dead and a chance for the whole family to come together, a time for communion with the dead and the living, and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame.
I couldn’t help but be happy for the Malagasy Catholic folk who have this event to help them to reconnect with and to celebrate life, and in the process, be in touch (very literally here) with death, which is something that all of us will have to encounter and accept. Often, fear is one of the leading factors people cling on to life, and sometimes, it is not life that one is clinging on to, but what they perceive as giving them life. And that is why many are clinging on to guilt, habits, egocentricities, idiosyncrasies, materialism, and control. A healthy approach to death and dying must be featured in any religion that hopes to bring its devotees to any kind of maturity and growth. The more we shun any talk of it, the more we put it at the fringes of our conversation and speak in ‘sotto voce’ anything that connects with death and dying, a very unhealthy message is sent out to our younger generation that prevents them from growing up with a fearlessness and courage that truly marks a mature person.
In our Catholic faith, we have celebrations and feasts that honour the deceased – our loved ones (All Souls’ Day), our heroes (any feast of the Martyrs) and even the dying (few actually have participated in the very beautiful prayers for the Commendation of the Dying). Being in touch with God and one another at these ‘border situations’ allow us all to foster and develop what is known as a ‘mellowness of heart’. And I believe that it is this mellowness that helps one to be more charitable, patient, outreaching and merciful when it is asked of by both loved ones and those who hate us.
One thing that struck me about Famadihana was that it is supposed to be done in a spirit of joy and celebration. When we observe rites and rituals about our deceased, don’t we often leave out that element? When we clean the gravesites or visit their columbaria where their remains are kept, we don’t often go with ‘celebration’ in our hearts, being thankful for the joy our connectedness gave us, and even continues to give us despite our physical separation? Even our funeral Masses are ‘celebrated’, aren’t they? We must come to a point in our lives when indeed, the lives of our deceased are truly celebrated and not just mourned.
Anyone who has participated in a funeral liturgy, and has known the deceased lying in the casket, will be moved. The irony that presents itself there is almost deafening – the one person who cannot move anymore, who cannot breath anymore and whose heart has stopped beating is the one person who can bring all who are present there to move in a new way, breathe in a new way, and for his or her heart to beat in a new way, and from there, walk in a new way, especially when we become reminded of our own mortality and promise that our lives can bring to others.
When our lives are moved in that way, aren’t we also doing a sort of ‘Famadihana’ of our kind, where we ‘dance’ with the dead?