Friday, April 22, 2011

A tale from the crypt

This morning I unexpectedly witnessed a Malagasy exhumation here at the center. The center is building a new dormitory for the boys who live here, and while leveling the earth at the construction site, the workmen uncovered an old tomb still containing the bones of its occupant.

Tombs are very significant to Malagasies, many of whom still adhere to Madagascar's tradition of ancestor worship. Above-ground stone tombs are a common sight in the countryside here, often prettily decorated with painted carvings. The tombs are often associated with local fadys, or taboos. Fadys govern many aspects of life here. For example, in Ambohidratrimo, where I live, the locals believe that goats cause crop-destroying hail, and bringing a goat into the village is therefore fady. But since fadys are usually understood to be strictures laid down by ancestors who continue to watch over the living, there are many fadys associated with tombs.

The fadys are really just a part of the respect that Malagasies pay to the dead. As far as I understand, Malagasy animists believe that their ancestors watch carefully over the living, and are very much involved in day-to-day life. Another well-known custom here is the famadihiana, or turning of the bones. In order to help a dead relative join the ancestors, his or her bones are exhumed a few years after burial, to be wrapped in a new shroud and reburied in a more or less joyful ceremony.

So the discovery of an unknown tomb at the construction site here caused quite a stir. The center is technically owned by a powerful Malagasy Christian denomination, and most of the staff are either totally secular or more or less Christian. But even the Christians here generally observe traditional customs and beliefs to some extent. The tomb and its occupant had to be moved to the local cemetery, but it was done according to custom. Here are some pictures.

Excavating the tomb at the construction site.

The opening to the tomb. There are other tombs still standing nearby that were noted in a 1902 survey of the area, so we surmise that this tomb is about the same age.

A shot of the bones in the tomb. Nobody knows who this person was, and it will probably prove impossible to find out. He or she is now resting in a nearby communal cemetery.

Rum is an important part of Malagasy ceremonies involving the dead.  Before exhuming the remains, Akany's maintenance man Jose poured a few capfuls of the rum into the grave as an offering.

The workers put what bones they could find into a new shroud to be wrapped for reburial. The only intact bones were a femur and some vertebrae; the others must have disintegrated over the last century or so.

The shroud, wrapped as is customary here. The older worker to the right has attended a number of famadiahana and knows the proper way to tie a shroud.

Jose pouring a capful of rum to splash on the tires of the 4x4 that took the bones to the reburial site. The newly wrapped bones are at his feet in a straw mat, next to the concrete and sand that will be used to build a new crypt.


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