My grandfather's death was one of the most shocking and saddest moments in my life, not to mention the pain we felt for losing the pillar of our family. He was a tough but tender at the same time, with strong ideals and a very special sense of life. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he visited us for the last time and told us exactly what he wanted us to do at the moment of his death. He didn't want any traditional ceremony because he didn't want people crying and feeling pity for him and us. Instead, he made us promise that we would organize a party honoring him and celebrating the good times he spent with each of the guests. He wanted us to bid him farewell with music and joy. So, when it finally happened. Devastated as we were, we fulfilled his last wish. Family and close friends gathered and we toasted in his honor. Every year, we still make that toast to honor him, not with sadness for not having him with us, but happy to have had spent such wonderful times with him. His decision, which at the beginning was shocking and unsettling for us, has become a family tradition we want to continue.
Our general understanding of death comes out of selfishness. We grieve, not because our beloved ones are gone, but because we don't know how to say goodbye to them. We feel devastated for ourselves. However, for many cultures death isn't a farewell, it's just a process of transformation where the soul remains present, and for that reason, it's a reason for celebration instead of sorrow. That's the case in Madagascar, where families celebrate the deaths of loved ones with music and dancing with them, literally.
Gathered around the family crypt, the elders enter with candles and lanterns. The process can be long since, due to humidity, the names of the bodies tend to be erased or blurred. Together and remembering more or less where each of the bodies is placed, they start the recognition. Once they're sure of who the body belongs to, they shout their name and take it outside where the crowd joyfully cheers and places them carefully on the ground. When each of the bodies is out, they uncover them and bathe them with perfumes and sparkling wine. They then change the shrouds for new ones. Once covered the celebration begins. Accompanied by live music, the bodies are carried by the family who dances with them while the elders explain to the youngest the importance of the celebration. Each has their turn to share a moment with their beloved ones in a celebration where grief is not invited.
Each family organizes their own Famidihana, which is celebrated every five or seven years. It's a ritual that requires money and a thorough organization. Each member gives some money to pay for the musicians, the feast, new clothes for them, and new shrouds for each deceased family member. Once they've decided that they're going to organize the ceremony, they have to consult the local astronomer who makes a reading of the stars and settles the appropriate date when, spiritually, the bodies can be taken out. The interesting part is that this ritual doesn't belong to a particular religion. It's more of a local tradition in which each individual pours their beliefs. For instance, while most of them see this celebration as a way of sharing and catching up with their dead ones, others believe that it's a ceremony to honor their memory, since they don't believe that there's such a thing as communicating with them. Moreover, they believe it's a great way to strengthen the family bonds.
It really doesn't matter what each of them believes in. The most important thing is that it's a celebration to make their departed and themselves happy. It's a matter of always remembering those who are gone in a peaceful and joyful way.
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New York Times