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Reverence for the dead has always been a strong central tenant of Malagasy culture. As one travels across Madagascar, they will see the above ground family tombs dotted along the hills of the country side. While respect for the dead is a common theme in Madagascar, customs and ceremonies will differ by region.

In the central highlands, the people will have an annual “turning of the bones” celebration where family comes in from all over the country and the community exhumes the bodies from the tombs to rewrap them in a new, white cloth. In the Deep South, an elaborate funeral follows the death of a family patriarch. This funeral includes constructing a tomb with special stones and erecting several totem poles called aloalo. Out on the east coast, we have an annual celebration that falls on All Saints Day, but is more closely translated to “Day of The Dead.”

The family tombs are located along the road about a kilometer out of town and are scattered among the trees as far as the eye can see. The day starts bright and early. Family members bring shovels and their machetes and spend the dawn hours clearing out the pathways to the tomb of overgrowth. Once they’ve finished, the whole family will go to visit a tomb or set of tombs that belongs to their family. Once everyone has arrived an elder will then give a speech, take a swig of the traditional-homemade rum, and pour the rest of the glass on the ground at the entrance to the tomb. After that, others will come and lay various offerings along the outer walls of the tomb. The offerings can be anything that a family member appreciated when they were alive. Cookies, honey, alcohol, even chewing tobacco are left by the tomb to honor their loved ones.

Everyone usually heads back to town before too late in the morning. The rest of the day is spent with friends and family. I went to have lunch with some friends and stopped by to visit my host family in the afternoon. A soccer game is hosted in the afternoon and per usual, there is a dance at night in the community building where people will party until the morning. I’m always grateful for an opportunity to learn about and connect with my community, and the celebration this past month was truly a great opportunity for that.

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Stephan Laboy is an agricultural extension volunteer serving with the Peace Corps in Madagascar. His story can be followed at stephanlaboy.wordpress.com.

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