Monday, January 23, 2017

In Death There is Life

 This post is part of Blogging Abroad's 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week three: Cultural Differences.


“As members of society, most of us see only what we expect to see, and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see when we have learned the definitions and classifications of our culture.” ~The Forest of Symbols


            Cultural differences can make it hard to find similarities between oneself and other people from around the world.  To the unaccustomed eye these cultural differences can seem strange, odd, or just wrong.  We are quick to judge cultural differences without truly understanding the meaning behind them. This is not exactly a fault of our own.  Each person grows up learning a certain set of values and beliefs and when these are challenged by something that seems new and different it is natural to brush them aside as unusual without acknowledging the fact that to others they are entirely normal.  We do this often times without even seeing the similarities.  
Cemetery in Manambondro
            Take for example a funeral, and the events that follow, in the Southeast of Madagascar, where I spent my first two years of service. 
            As I was walking down the road outside of town one morning I began to hear singing coming from over the hill.  As I crested the hill I saw a procession of about 30 men and women coming my way.  They were all singing and dancing and at the head of the group they were carrying a body, wrapped in white, on a makeshift stretcher above their heads.  Those carrying the deceased were not exempt from the singing and dancing, causing the deceased to be bobbled around above their heads.  At first I was confused about what was going on; unsure of why everyone was so happy.  In my experience funeral processions have always been cheerless occasions but for them it was joyous; a celebration of the life the person had lead.  
Standing stone to venerate an ancestral king of one of the villages outside my town.
I was inevitably asked to join and I walked behind, more as an observer than a participant, as we made our way through town and to their tribes Tranobe (big house) where the ‘wake’ would take place (can read about my first ‘wake’ here).  The ‘wake’ was a fairly somber event.  Everyone, instead of visiting, came to stay through the night.  The deceased lay on a mat, still wrapped in white, by the eastern wall where the immediate relative sat watching over their loved one.  All those in attendance sat along the walls drinking and talking amongst themselves.  In this I was reminded of our own wakes or visitations; though lasting much longer in Madagascar they are not much different then what we are used to.
A Tranobe in Mananjary during Sambatra.
The following day the deceased was again carried by a group of people, but this time to their family tomb where they would be laid to rest.  The tomb itself is much like one you would find in a cemetery in the states.  Over the years after the deceased has been laid in the tomb, a series of events take place to venerate the dead ancestors; ancestor veneration being the main religious path in Madagascar.  There are many different reasons why they may want/need to venerate their ancestors and there are many different ways of doing it, so my examples will be far from exhaustive but easy to relate to.  One way of venerating the ancestors is simply cleaning the tomb itself and laying plants, flowers, or tokens at the tomb.  This is something we do as well.  We too visit the graves of our loved ones to lay wreaths or flowers and sometimes to talk to them.  Another way is to pour out the first bit of liquor on the ground for the ancestors to have; or ‘pouring one out for the homies’ as we would say.
Offering alcohol to the ancestors. *Photo credit: Jade Toft
In Madagascar one doesn’t fully die and go away after death, but they linger in a medium not far enough outside this world that they don’t have a hand in it.  Though this reason for ancestral worship may be different than our own, we too practice, at least in part, some of the same cultural traditions for the dead. 

*This blog post describes only the traditions of the funeral and following events in my own region, but is it exhaustive in relating all of the traditions and taboos within the description given.

You can read the previous Blog Challenge 2017 posts here: Tried Changing the World, but Changed Myself, I Live in a Developing World and So Do You.

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