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Funeral Fomba

Life in Madagascar cannot be explained without death. Anthropologists tout Madagascar’s people for their incredible array of funeral practices. In the coastal area of Ambilobe and the town of Ampondralava in particular, their own funeral practices have evolved over the ages to include Muslim and Christian traditions, depending on the beliefs of the deceased. All funerals in Madagascar center on the concept of ancestors, or the razana. This is where the similarities end. Not only do different regions have different dialects, but their burial practices can vary drastically as well. I can only reflect on the Antakarana fomba that I have observed directly and had patiently explained to me by my never-tiring counterpart Madame Ginette. The timing and religious considerations for burials depend on the beliefs of the deceased, as mentioned above. In Ampondralava most people either pray in Christian churches or are Muslim, but there are a few people who simply follow the ways of their ancestors, or their razana. These beliefs in life dictate how a body is laid out for viewing (perhaps even IF it is laid out) as well as the timing and placement of the body during burial. Most Antakarana people are buried in above-ground graves. This requires a lot of labor, as the cement for the bricks for the grave needs to be mixed and the bricks dried in a span of about two days. Fortunately, entire families, and villages really, gather to visit the family in their time of mourning. There are several different times and ways that families are to be visited, and it is all dictated on the visitor’s relationship to the deceased as well as the deceased’s role in the community. The day of the wake, or the first day that the deceased’s body is laid out for viewing, visits begin in the morning. Genders sit separately throughout the entire burial process. The matriarchs of the family sit together and receive female visitors, and the patriarchs in another room or even another house, to receive all visitors, both male and female. This morning visit can be fairly informal, it is a kind of paying respects to the family and a way to announce that you will return if you intend to stay up with the body. If you plan on staying with the body, after the brief morning visit non-immediate family return with money and rice. Generally families or co-workers, or close friends, give their money in envelopes together, with the head of the family presenting the money to the family. Rice is also given, and it is mostly consumed by those who give it, as there are two days of grieving together that precede the actual burial. Cows, or zebus, are slaughtered for funerals in Ampondralava, with the stomach and liver being prepared separately, as people eat them on the second day to sustain themselves better after staying awake the whole night. The giving of money and rice gets incredibly specific. Only un-husked rice can be given by the cup during a funeral because husked rice is seen as a gift given during celebrations. It would be offensive and seen as a sign of celebration of the death if a cup of white rice were given. It is also fady to eat chicken on the days you attend a funeral as chickens are eaten during celebrations as well. This white rice only rule exempts entire gunny sacks of rice, cause hey, 50 pounds of rice is 50 pounds of rice, and the Malagasy LOVE their rice. Next up in funeral fomba is the preparation and lying out of the body. After lunch and dinner have been eaten, the same gender members of the family will have prepared the body for the viewing and wake. A body cannot have any metal on it, so clothing with metal is out. There are also certain colors that are fady – this varies region by region. The idea of preparing a body for burial is to make it clean. In some areas turning of the bones, or exhumation and reburial, takes place. Metal alters the way that flesh decays, and thus makes the bones or last remaining physical vestiges of the razana dirty.

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