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The walking (and dancing) dead

The premiere of The Walking Dead got me thinking about a couple of ancestor rituals where the dead rise from their graves to commune with the living.  During both of these ceremonies the dead are given fresh attire and paraded around the village or tomb.  They are a celebration of life and death that bring together large families in a festive atmosphere.

The Indonesian ritual walking of the dead

Torajan family posing with their deceased. mummified relative. Image credit: Kelli Swazey’s TED Talk

The people of Tana Toraja, in South Sulewsi, Indonesia, have a ritual called Ma’Nene that takes place every few years-depending on the village.  As part of a larger grave cleaning ritual, the Toraja people exhume the mummified bodies of their family members so that they can be washed and dressed in fresh clothes so that they can celebrate the spirits of their ancestors.  In some cases the bodies are close to a 100 years old.  After the ritual grooming, the bodies are walked around the village then they are returned to their freshly cleaned coffins until the next festival.  The Toraja people believe that the spirits of their ancestors stay around long after the body dies and this ritual celebrates the bond between living and dead relatives.  There are some slideshows with photos from Ma’Nene festivals at the New York Daily News and Demotix.

Madagascar’s dance with the dead

The famadihana (fa-ma-dee-an), or “turning of the bones,” is a funerary celebration practiced every seven years by the Malagasy people of the highlands of Madagascar.  The custom originated with their belief that the souls of the deceased can only enter the land of the dead after the corpse completely skeletonizes, so they lovingly take care of bodies of their ancestors until this happens.

During this ritual, the Malagasy people remove the bodies from family crypts and swathe them in fresh shrouds, often rearranging the remains so they maintain the shape of the body, and spray the decomposing remains with expensive perfume.  Once the remains are rewrapped, the Malagasy play music and dance around the tomb with the bodies.  When the dancing ends, the bundled corpses are placed on the ground, where family members touch the bodies.

The famadihana is a tradition that serves many purposes.  It’s a way of explaining the importance of the ancestors as well as passing down the tradition to their children.  The “turning of the bones” is also good excuse for a family reunion and a party because the celebration brings together extended families, as well as strengthening the bonds between the living and the dead.

Famadihana reburial turning of the bones in Madagascar. Photo via Wikipedia.



Bearak, B. (2010 September 5).  Dead Join the Living in a Family Celebration.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from:

Meyers, K. (2011 February 10).  Five Reasons for Moving an Entire Skeleton.  Bones Don’t Lie.  Retrieved from:





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