Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bone-turning

A few months back Mr C described the bone-turning ceremony of the Imerina people in Malagasy. It's been playing around in my mind since.

Basically, once a year the family tomb is opened and the bones of the dead are brought out. Each set of bones is unwrapped from a silk shroud, wrapped in a new shroud, and treated to a day of feasting, singing and drinking. The bones get to catch up on the news of the previous year. If there has been a wedding, the bones are 'introduced' to the new family members; if a new house has been built, the bones are given a tour.

If it's your first year to be bone-turned, the initial part of the day is spent with your relatives picking away your putrid flesh. Then you can catch up with the rest of the dead in their escapades.

There's a really practical interpretation of life as super-transient, and death as a permanent (much better) state. So what if you live in a mud hut wearing raffia clothes, because life will soon be over, and when you're dead you will get to live in a stone house, and wear silk.

The ancestors protect the land, so if someone dies away from home they need to be brought back to 'live' in the family tomb. As a result, you get some kooky lists of taxi fares:
  • Journeys up to 2km - 50 francs
  • Journeys over 2km - 100 francs
  • Weddings, funerals, exhumations - Price to be agreed


At the end of the day of celebration, the bones are taken for a final dance around the land, to bring fertility. Then they're brought back to the darkness to rest for another year. Remarkable.

There's an account of a bone-turning from earlier this year here.

7 comments:

paddy said...

And why not? The dead should not be allowed to escape family gatherings just because they are dead - now what kind of excuse is that?

Still, removing the remaining putrid flesh...I can think of better ways to kick off a party. Mind you, I can also think of worse ways...

Orlaith said...

What's super-weird is this: they lay the body on a fresh rush mat to pick off the flesh, and women wait outside the tomb for the mat to be thrown away afterwards - like a bizarre wedding bouquet I guess. The mat from the dead person is supposed to be potent fertility medicine.

I thought nuts on the top of Bolo do Mel were gakky, but cooking up a fleshy mat is a whole other realm entirely...

Anonymous said...

I saw a film of this in a world lit class a few summers back. my favorite prof, David Alvarez (from Gibralter originally), liked to liven up the lectures with music and film. We watched this with facination, the singing and dancing were pretty lively, tho' the guest of honor was a bit reserved, until he explained what it was we were seeing. Then the "eeeuw" factor kicked in. but I just thought it looked like every one was having a rolicking good time, the dead included. i would have gone to this party. but then, that's how i am.

lois g

Orlaith said...

No way! The subjects that never come up in casual email conversation...

I agree; I'd be at the party too. Death and grieving are so hidden these days - it seems such an open way to honour the ancestors (and bring them up to speed with recent events. Can you imagine the amount of gossiping on bone-turning days!).

In our world you get a 'month's mind' and anniversary, and that becomes the domain of the immediate family after a year or two. Bone-turning has a wonderful public flamboyance to it; a lovely way of drawing strength from the past to live in the present.

It's considered an honour to be a putrid-flesh-picker. That might take me a while to get used to...

SaraC said...

I think I might stick with the metaphorical bone picking myself. Having come from the Irish background of funerals (heaps of people, much food, drink and gossip -sharing stories and memories and catching up) I find the more reserved approach over here (England) a little hard to get used to. I think getting together like that is pretty healthy. Certainly I would like a decent party when I go. As someone said to me recently after going to a wedding "yes it was great, but I still prefer a good funeral".

Orlaith said...

Too true! Weddings bring out the self-absorbed gene in everyone. Funeral conversations are SO much more interesting.

Didn't you once meet a 'ligger' at a funeral, who didn't know anyone (living or dead) but just showed up for the booze? Honestly, the way loopy people gravitate towards you...

SaraC said...

Well, what can I say - it's a gift or maybe just they recognise a fellow loopy person. Still, in latter years, I seem to have developed a more effective "leave me alone glare" that seems to be working quite well.