Dancing with the Dead

Photographs and Text by Ed Ou

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Winter in Madagascar is a season that sees two traditional rituals of passage – famadihana (the ‘turning of the bones’), and rites of circumcision.

Every five to ten years, it is the custom for many Malagasy families to exhume their deceased relatives, wrap them in new shrouds, and dance with their bodies before returning them to ancestral crypts. The ceremonies of famadihana take place in winter as some believe that the dead are cold, so need new shrouds. Deceased ancestors are gone but are always resting close by. Their tombs lie in the backyards of family homes. Famadihana involves huge family festivity and sumptuous banquets of meat and rice. It is a time for the living to meet the dead, to show respect to ancestors and ask for their blessing.

Also at wintertime, Malagasy boys undergo circumcision to mark their transition to manhood. By marking the moment with the physical transformation of circumcision, the point of crossing over is made an event. Originally, the ritual took place in winter as it less likely to get sick then in the heat of summer. These days, circumcision ceremonies are often held when boys reach school-going age, rather than at puberty. The ceremony starts in the early morning before the sun comes up, and once the boys have returned home they are lavished with toys and sweets.

This story is about the persistence of life. About transitions and tributes that despite their routine nature, bring forth profound and genuine emotion. Photographing the story allowed me to study the power of ritual to help people feel and remember. Traditions endure, and they indicate a continuance of life. Circumcision marks a transition for boys to the next stage of life. Similarly, death is not finality. Life and memory persist despite death. Celebrating lives posthumously questions the significance of death. When graves are opened during famadihana, family members hug, kiss and dance with the bodies. There is no sense of fear or disgust, death becomes meaningless and families are made whole again.