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  3. Dancing with the Dead: Famadihana

It involves much drinking, eating, and dancing, and culminates in the cemetery. For a day, the unequivocal otherness of the dead is disregarded and they are brought from the crypt to join the party.

Practiced in Madagascar only by highland communities, the ceremony requires years of preparation leading to an event that can last from two days to a week. Its roots are obscure. It certainly predates the arrival of the missionaries who brought Christianity to the highlands in the early 19th century, but nobody is sure by how long. It is thought that Madagascar was originally populated by Austronesian people who made the improbable journey across the Indian Ocean on outrigger canoes. A tradition similar to Famadihana is practiced in Indonesia, lending credence to the idea that Famadihana has been in Madagascar as long as people have.

Our host in Ambohibary is the head of the family, Jules Rakotoarisoa. He seems to be constantly mulling over the problems that could arise at any moment. With members of his extended family about to descend on his home, all of whom will need to be fed and entertained, the potential for problems to arise is considerable. As exhumation happens only every five, seven or nine years, people have a chance to plan for it. For me, everything has to be done from the heart but this is a task and responsibility.

We had come to Madagascar researching a project on the way that death is dealt with in different cultures. The death of my younger brother when I was 21 left me with the sense that there was something cramped and unhealthy in the way that my society—middle-class England—deals with the dead.

There was an initial period of mourning during which most people made an effort to accommodate the eccentricity of grief. But it was short, and when it was over there was a feeling that speaking of him would be cruel to whomever I happened to be with. That it was unfair to challenge those around me with a subject that was too big, too tragic, still too taboo, to appear in the patter of everyday conversation.

Your beloved relative has become a conversational tripwire. This strange new quality they have acquired—that of being dead—is apparently distasteful to many. Mention of my brother would trigger a brow furrowed in concern, an awkward stammer, or a clammy and uninvited hand on my arm. Sometimes it would be met by a look of outright fear.

The problem is that after people die, they continue to affect you in much the same way that they did when they were alive. They can still be infuriating in fact, if anything, they become even more so or make you laugh. Yet—at least in polite English society—it has become a relationship tinged with taboo.

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A relationship that most people are not equipped to understand, and not inclined to tackle. The day before the exhumation most of the guests have arrived and preparations are well under way. A giant and ropey looking sound system is unloaded from the back of a truck. Certain rituals are observed: a chicken is slaughtered and its blood spilled on the ground where the food will be prepared. The men bless the house with rum, a slightly tongue-in-cheek process with as much poured down throats as on the ground.

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That night the music starts: pounding Malagasy dance music that the ancient speakers render into almost white noise. The first on the dance floor are the local drunks and kids, the former swaying and staggering from side to side while the kids dart around them like a school of little fish around whales.

They laugh and yell and pull impressive moves. Jules circulates, greeting newcomers, keeping an eye on everything, and occasionally taking a turn across the dance floor. His normally inscrutable face is split by a big grin, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. As the dance floor fills, it becomes an unexpectedly familiar scene. Made-up teenagers huddle in groups, self-consciously pretending not to check everyone else out.

At one point, a drunk hassles someone. He grabs him by the collar and they reel towards the exit in that peculiar, wallowing tango seen late at night in bars across the world. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the overblown family celebrations that most of us have attended at some point, willingly or otherwise. All the familiar characters are there.

Dancing with the Dead: Famadihana

All the loaded looks, the affections and resentments, pettiness and generosity are on display. The injection of himself into the story brings to life the history of those with whom he engages.


And the story is engaging. Although rooted in anthropology, this volume will also be of interest to those in performance studies, Asian studies, history, and cultural studies. Wetmore Jr. Dancing with the Dead is an absorbing and nuanced ethnography that will be of significant interest to Japan and East Asian specialists and to all who engage with questions of history and memory, subaltern studies, and the ethnography of the everyday. This will be an important book not only for and about Okinawan history but also about the times of continued violence and militarism in which we live.

That has now changed, for here we have an ethnography of Okinawa that finally does justice to the complexity of its poetic and political realities. In Dancing with the Dead , Christopher T. Nelson takes up the Okinawan performers, raconteurs, and citizens who work to transform everyday life and to reanimate the present, all in the service of cultural and political commemoration.

Beautifully written and deeply considered, Dancing with the Dead is a signal contribution to the anthropologies of performance and everyday life, and it will remain the benchmark ethnography of Okinawa for years to come. Christopher T. Bk Cover Image Full.

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Sign In. Search Cart. Their heartland is southern Mexico, where indigenous culture is strongest. Mixquic, a city that was once part of the Aztec empire and lies southeast of Mexico City , is known as 'City of the Dead' for its celebrations of the holiday, including a procession that makes stops at shrines to the deceased, dance and music performances, plays and poetry readings.

Oaxaca , where there are graveyard tours and a 'best altar' competition, and which boasts week-long festivities, is another popular destination for those interested in experiencing the holiday firsthand. Travelers there should have no problem stumbling upon street decorations and parades. Meanwhile in Puebla , a city southeast of Mexico City known for its culinary scene, colonial architecture and arts culture, visitors can attend festivities at museums, theaters and other arts venues.