Death and the Grave Part 4

To read the previous posts in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Tanala bury their dead in a fasina [fah-see-nah], a burial tomb.  For centuries their tombs were located at the bottom of a granite cliff or cave opening. The tomb will serve as the burial place for a large family group or several family groups within a village. Tim visited a family group that is close to the paved road. Because the family is close to the paved road they have easier access to resources to build a more modern fasina. Some of the resources used to build a more modern tomb are granite stone, cement, and a lot of manual labor.







How and where the ancestors are buried is very important. When a person dies letters are written and sent out to surrounding areas to notify family and friends of the death. The body may not be buried for several days, sometimes even four or five days later. The waiting allows for family to come from far away to join in the grieving and wailing process. The family members closest to the deceased will typically not sleep until the body is buried. Some are tasked with making coffee through the night as others are moaning and weeping for the dead. If many family and friends arrive, then this gathering becomes a burden on the family so culturally everyone brings a gift which is usually money but can be substituted with food like rice or beans.

The body is wrapped in clothe, carried to the tomb, and laid to rest. The Tanala do not take these bodies back out of the tomb so this is a final goodbye to their physical body, but not their spirit. The spirit of the dead, particularly of elder in the village, is now considered among the “razana,” the ancestors. Their spirit is not far from where they have been buried so the tomb is usually close (<1Km) to the village of the family. This allows the razana to have access to the village, the fields, virtually all parts of life the living enjoy, only now continued in the spirit afterlife.

A recent development that is radically impacting the worldview of the Tanala is tomb-raiders robbing the graves of bodies and  bones. These are poor people and their burial customs don’t include burying them with valuable things such as jewelry so the motive behind the bone collecting is still a mystery.

Several conversations revealed that in order for the Tanala to call on the razana the bones of their ancestors must still be in the grave where they were buried. So the place of burial is important, the spirits have power to offer blessing or curse when conversed with, but the spirits’ powers are linked to their bones in the physical world.

In instances when the family crypt has been raided and the bones stolen, one Tanala man has explained that the dust of the bones that remained along with the surrounding dirt was collected and relocated to a new tomb closer to the village. In a desperate attempt to bring balance back into their worldview in the face of grave robbers and in order to be able to pray to their ancestors again, some have had to accept that they no longer know where the bones of their ancestors are, merely the dust that surrounded them, so they offer reverent prayer and blood to the dust.

By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.  Gn 3:19

The next part of the series will discuss other recent developments in Tanala culture in response to the tomb raiders. It will also discuss elements of the offerings during the sacrifice used in this new process.