Insights to worldview (death and the afterlife)…

Living in the village…to put it simply…has been hard. I’m so different from my neighbors and yet in many ways so much the same. A highlight of my time here and the greatest catalyst to learning Sakalava culture has been my involvement in funerals. When someone dies the news spreads like wildfire, and when you hear the news, it’s appropriate to go as soon as possible to visit the house of the one who has died. The funeral event provides a huge amount of insight into Sakalava worldview, and using these photos I aim to share with you just a handful of the insights I have gleaned over the last year…keep in mind I’m mostly sharing cultural information with you, without critique.

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When a person dies the body remains in the house and is made ready for the wake and funeral. The body is never left alone; day and night family and friends stay awake with the body from the time of death until the burial. It is understood that the spirit of the dead person is present near the house until the body is taken to the graveyard. Men in the village build the coffin, white clothes are traditionally used for wrapping around the coffin, all belongings are removed from the house when someone dies (this is related to cleansing), and the casket is kept up off the ground.

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It’s of high importance to be present and involved at the funeral. The days leading up to the funeral people flow in and around the house, sitting, visiting, and offering kind words or gifts to help with funeral preparations. But the day of the funeral there is lots of action! Men chop wood for cooking, often they help start the fires, slaughter the cow, clean the innards at the ocean or river, build the coffin, carry the coffin, tell stories together, eat till full and many share rum. Women sift rice, clean the rice, prepare food, and draw water (the large blue barrel on the left side of the following photo is the water barrel which younger women keep full for cooking), they clean huge pots at the ocean or river, converse and tell stories, eat till full and some also share rum.

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The body does not come out of the house until everyone has eaten till full. This particular funeral had more than 500 people present. I’m amazed at how the women feed that many hungry stomachs (with no electricity)! A speech is given before leaving for the graveyard, and if the deceased was married, then the living spouse cuts a rope held over the coffin, symbolizing the end of the marriage.

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The eldest patriarch speaks quietly to the family and the deceased, explaining that it’s time to move the body and spirit to the grave.

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Appointed men in the family carry the coffin, and once their gone it’s hard to keep up. People are running, skipping, briskly walking, clapping, chanting, singing, and dancing! Everyone follows and people move quickly to try and stay near the coffin. On the journey, the coffin stops as people chant and clap, share rum, rest and then carry on.

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The coffin bounces with the dancing and running, and loads of energy is felt as the body moves away from home.

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Many people keep up, some fall behind and return home, it’s difficult for the elderly to go far. Together, the village moves the body and the spirit…

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At this funeral we walked a couple miles to the graveyard, the tide had come in and I found myself in water chest high. In this photo, we are continuing the journey to the graveyard through the mangroves…

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Once arrived, everyone finds a place to sit, often resting on another grave site. Drinks are shared, both rum and water, the grave has already been prepared by men in the family. Families with wealth have concrete graves prepared for the burial (as in the following photo); others do not have the same means, but it’s always desired to use every resource available to make things as nice as possible for the deceased. Once the coffin is placed in the hole, the patriarch of the family speaks to the spirit, tapping gently on the coffin with a stick, explaining that this is where they will stay now. Talking to the spirit, they often state words such as, “Do not bring us trouble in the village,” or “we desire only your blessings.”At the end of the burial a cup, often half full of rum, is left behind for the deceased, perfume is open and sprinkled on the grave as a sweet fragrance to be enjoyed by the spirits.

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The Sakalava funeral event opens my eyes to the reality of the spirit world in a whole new way. My neighbors everyday are truly living out of a desire to please the spirit world, blessings come from the spirits and curses come from the spirits. The collective nature of the Sakalava people is integral, absolute to daily life in a way that is challenging for the independent Westerner to fully understand and experience. I’ll finish with ten cultural insights:

1. Your presence or absence at the funeral contributes to one’s standing in the afterlife.

2. The body is absolutely never alone and this also contributes to the “blessing and curse” worldview of my neighbors.

3. Life continues after death as the spirit moves into another realm.

4. Life on earth and life in the spiritual realm are intricately connected, and each affects the other.

5. Tasks are communal; nothing is done individually, as that would indicate “aloneness” in the afterlife.

6. Rituals are routine in such a way, so that if done “rightly” or “wrongly” it will result in blessing or curse in the village.

7. It’s possible to control the spirit world.

8. If the deceased is of old age, than the funeral event is in large part a celebration as the spirit moves into the next world.

9. Rum, music, dance, and rhythm are used alongside interaction and communication with the spiritual world.

10. Spirits have the ability to return to the village, embody another human being, and bring a message.

Our team is learning from these insights. Last week we wrestled with the following questions, “In light of these worldview realities, where can we find commonalities and differences between our Christian worldview and the Sakalava worldview? And how might we present the Gospel message to our Sakalava neighbors in a way that speaks with cultural understanding?

Please pray with us as we seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and continue to minister among our Sakalava friends…

Rebe