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Wednesday, 11th November 2020

Life, Death and Respect of Ancestors in Malagasy Culture

By Philémon Ndremana

In the Philosophy of Malagasy, life and death are interrelated.

Madagascar is a country consisting of several tribes so even though we are one people, one island and we speak the same language, there are differences between each of the different Regions and in the traditions of the different Regions. This difference is noticeable in the way people show their beliefs in the existence of souls and ancestors. However, beliefs and traditions are similar in terms of ancestors, and I would like to look at these today.

For Malagasy, soul is the life source that makes a body alive. A soul makes a human a human. Fedrà (Malagasy holy stories) tell that body is from the ground, but life is from God and returns to heaven when a person passes away. The body returns to the ground when buried, but life or breath of life combines with the air of heaven and climbs up to heaven returning to God its creator.

Therefore both earth and heaven are the owners of humans, and God appears through the earth and the heaven. Humans' lives don't belong to themselves. The proverb says: "The human is God's rice plant, he takes the one he likes to take, and he leaves the one he likes to leave"

Mountains in Madagascar
Part of the Andringitra massif in central Madagascar

But it's not only life that makes a body alive but also the “ambiroa” or “avelo” (spirit). Shadows or the reflection of a person in water shows the existence of avelo or ambiroa in an individual. When a person passes away, God takes the life away as said earlier. However, avelo doesn’t die along with the body but has its way of living after life: wandering around the cold body when it is not yet buried and then gathering with the ancestors’ ambiroa when the deceased receive a proper funeral.

The body cannot keep ambiroa, it can wander around and it resides in the gravestones, in the ancestors' corner where you can call them, in a random place or in a person's body through tromba (a type of possession by a dead person’s spirit). Tradition, especially worshiping ancestors, defines the residence of ambiroa. There is also the belief that consists in having all avelo of every person that has died residing in Ambondrombe at the bottom of the Boby Andringitra hills in the Tanala and Betsileo region. 

Respect of Ancestors, sources of life, famadihana (the turning of the bones)

Famadihana reburial turning of the bones in Madagascar
Hery Zo Rakotondramanana (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There is no bigger tragedy than death, however, some conservative Malagasy people believe that a person who passes away may then become an ancestor and someone to bless them. Regardless of the fact that no one will live on earth forever, some people believe that those who have passed away can become ancestors who are then able to bless them. To show respect to those that have become ancestors we call people that have passed away ‘Itompokolaly’ or ‘Itompokovavy’ (Gentleman or Lady), why the body of the deceased is laid down on a decorated bed, and why we organise a mass for the deceased to bless the family left behind.

Throughout Madagascar, it is believed that the dead who receive a proper funeral become ancestors or God. However, in certain regions, some people believe that the dead rise and possess the living through ‘tromba’.

In Malagasy belief, it is only those who receive a proper funeral that become ancestors. A funeral is called proper when each process of the tradition regarding the funeral has been followed and it is only by following each of these proper processes that the person can become an ancestor and bless the family left behind. However, even if the deceased receives a proper funeral if the deceased is angry with the living they are able to cause them sickness or death. This most often happens when the living don’t remember the deceased according to Ntaolo (Malagasy ancestors).

Once the deceased is buried they become an ancestor.  As this is something to celebrate, they are not cried for anymore as satisfaction and trust are what should now fill up the mind because the deceased received a proper funeral and is now an ancestor

The responsibility of the deceased doesn’t stop just because they have now become an ancestor.  Ancestors have responsibilities to shoulder, including the responsibility to bless and protect the living, to lead them to the right path in following the traditions or to redirect them if they go the wrong way.

Even though certain tribes don’t practice famadihana (the turning of the bones), it is this that makes us really feel that the dead are ancestors and God. A recent death makes you grieve due to separation; on the other hand during famadihana, with time your sorrows and worries often have already faded away and the body has dried and doesn't smell anymore. So the event is to show the transformation of the dead into ancestor.

Famadihana is to pay tribute and remember our origins - the sources that gave life to the offspring. It is a very moving thing to see your ancestors. Covering the dried corpse with red cloth, shouldering or carrying it on the head while dancing and the screaming, which is common during famadihana, are ways of communicating with your heart and soul to the invisible ancestors that are believed to bless you. The community, relatives and friends thank the ancestors and will share food full of oil to one another, which is a way to create bonds with the ancestors as well as with relatives and friends.

There is this feeling of happiness during famadihana as your issues between families are forgotten and also you feel confident in facing a better future because God and ancestors will be there to bless and guide you in whatever you will do.

Looking at the current situation, we can see influences due to Christian belief and practice regarding poverty. But because death is a real problem to the life of the living, maintaining the strong bonds with our ancestors is a tradition that doesn’t change compared to the other aspects of life.

With special thanks to Lima Andriamanomesoa for the translation.

If you want to know more, please read those following books in which the text is based on:

  • P. Callet, Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagasikara, 2ed°, 1981
  • R. Decary, La mort et les coutumes funéraires à Madagascar, Maisonneuve, Paris, 1962
  • A. Rahajarijafy, Filozofia Malagasy, Ambozontany Fianarantsoa, 1970
  • Dahle, Ny anganon’ny Ntaolo, Imp FFMA, 2ème Ed°, 1956
  • P.A Razafintsalama, sj, Ny finoana sy ny fomba Malagasy, Ed Md Paoly, Antananarivo, 2004
  • H. Dubois, L’idée de Dieu chez les anciens Malgaches