Some might view death a morbid topic; I find it interesting because it is the ultimate unknown. When I compare how different religions and cultures practice their traditions related to this subject, I find we aren’t so different after all. While on a trip to Madagascar with my Natural Exposures photography group I had two encounters with death and thus wanted to explore the beliefs, customs, and superstitions of the Malagasy people regarding death.
My first chance encounter with death involved being on a beach early in the morning and witnessing a funeral procession, which included transportation of a casket across a body of water to the other side for the continuation of the burial ceremony.
The white shrouded casket was transported across the water first in an elongated boat, followed by a procession of well-dressed men and women, each using the same boat as their water shuttle. One of the women, while waiting for her turn to board the boat, approached our group and in French (one of the major languages of Madagascar) told us this was the funeral of her cousin; his body was being taken to the forest for burial. I was afraid to take too many more photographs when I saw the casket as I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and I’m quite certain I would not want anyone snapping photos during a funeral I was directly involved in either.
Malagasy Beliefs: Per my number one source; Tahiana, my most excellent gemologist turned Madagascar guide, the Malagasy people don’t really believe in heaven or hell; they believe when you die you either stay on the same plane or rise to a higher level. Depending on what a person did on earth determines if that person will move to a higher dimension or stay in the same dimension as the one they left. The ultimate punishment is to be stuck in the same dimension because this is a sort of imprisonment. Ghosts seen by the Malagasy are those who are imprisoned in the same dimension as they left. The Malagasy also believe through their dreams they can “try out” their future existence on higher or lower planes, which would be a loose interpretation of some of our beliefs of heaven and hell.
For the Malagasy people, the foundation for all religious and social values is a solid belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead. Malagasy people see death as the most important part of life, when the soul leaves the body to become an immortal spirit. The immortal spirits, or the razana, are believed to be actively looking after their descendants in a variety of ways. To ensure the approval of the razana, their wishes must be respected and obeyed and it is imperative their families and communities avoid certain actions or taboos.
In some areas of Madagascar to reaffirm the link between the living and the dead, people practice a custom of turning the dead, which involves either taking the remains out of an existing tomb to wrap it in new shrouds, or moving the body from one tomb to another. These ceremonies or famadihanas, are costly, mainly because of the expense of providing food for a large number of relatives and guests; however, it is considered a serious transgression to not hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so.
My second encounter with death in Madagascar occurred when I was waiting to photograph the sunset over the baobab trees. Our group happened upon a small cemetery which was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I really do enjoy the peaceful nature of cemeteries and was grateful to have the chance to take some photos of this interesting subject matter. Because of the intriguing nature of the cemetery, our group decided to return later that evening for some light painting of the graves. Photography light painting involves leaving the camera shutter open to take a long exposure photograph while using hand held lights (flashlights) to “paint or draw” in a scene while the camera shutter is open.
Malagasy Beliefs: The burial tomb, a prominent part of the island landscape in all regions of Madagascar, is the primary conduit between the living and the dead among the Malagasy people. It is built with great care and expense, reflecting the privileged position of the dead, and is often more costly and substantial than the houses of the living. The land upon which a family tomb is situated is nontransferable, and social and economic practices are designed to guarantee that tomb lands are kept within the family.
The tombs of the various peoples around the island differ somewhat in form. Some tombs tend to be solid, stone structures, built partially underground, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds. Other tombs are built of stone and surmounted by intricately carved wooden posts depicting human and animal figures. More recent tombs of some groups, particularly those built by rich families, are often made of concrete, with glass windows, brightly painted designs, and often have remarkable depictions of airplanes, taxicabs, or other modern paraphernalia mounted on the roofs. At one time, it was customary of the Sakalava people living around the Morondava River on the west coast to decorate their tombs with carvings showing explicit sexual activity which was meant to illustrate the life-giving force, or fertility, of their ancestors.
Our Malagasy guides had no issues while we photographed the cemetery in the late afternoon, but they were VERY uncomfortable with us taking night photos of the graves. They became increasingly restless and began to make a big deal out of needing to leave the area IMMEDIATELY before we offended anyone. I wasn’t sure who we would be offending; we were being quiet and respectful during our night photography session and we weren’t stepping on any graves, as our tripods were well away from the burial sites, but as soon as we began our light painting of the tombstones, the guides became extremely nervous.
I’m sure my gravesite light painting photos didn’t turn out exactly as they were supposed to, but with several people trying to learn this technique, in synchrony, in the dark, with the Malagasy guides insistent we had to leave, correctly mastering this photography style posed quite the challenge for me! Although we didn’t understand the Malagasy beliefs on their disruption of their dead at the time, we finished up as quickly as possible and left the area to avoid any potential negative consequences.
Malagasy Beliefs: The dead are sometimes described as “gods on earth,” who are considered to be the most important and authoritative members of the family; intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. As the living are merely temporary extensions of the dead, great hardship can result if the dead are offended or neglected.
Obviously in taking the night photographs of the Malagasy graves we were at risk of pissing off the departed spirits and placing the living at risk of severe punishment. Point taken Malagasy people; I would not want to piss off the slumbering spirits either as they may break out of their tombs and walk the earth in search of vengeance toward the offending persons!