Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author


Textiles in Madagascar actively link the living and their ancestors and are therefore fundamental cultural components of the highland Merina and Betsileo peoples. The elaborate relationships between weaving, the ancestors, and reburial practices are issues that reflect a complex world of spiritual power, social significance, and potent symbolism. This paper is based upon my research in Madagascar's central highlands, where I lived and studied art, life, and culture among the Merina and Betsileo. In particular, I am interested in the powerful relationships between the living and the dead that are experienced and negotiated through periodic reburials and the manipulation of silk burial shrouds.

Malagasy culture is permeated by the ancestors, who are believed to originate all customs and traditions. They embody great power and are capable of influencing current events and manipulating the lives of their descendants, and as such, play a vital role in Malagasy life. The act of reburial, during which the living periodically re-enshroud and thus reclothe their ancestors, is called famadihana, and is an important event within the community (fig. 1). Depending on family, regional, and divinatory considerations, this recurring ceremony takes place every two to twenty years after the initial funeral. Reburials are essential in defining the deceased as "ancestor" by ensuring his or her final inclusion in the family tomb and envelopment in a proper shroud. Shrouds are offerings to, and integral parts of the ancestors. They are powerful tools that allow the living to tangibly care for and bestow honor upon their predecessors. Moreover, they are vehicles of communication through which the living request blessings of the ancestors, and the ancestors protect, bless, and care for their living descendants in return. Finally, shrouds identify the ancestors socially, politically, economically, and literally, that is, by marking specific placement within the tomb. Envelopment within the cloth distinguishes the ancestors as Malagasy and as fully civilized human beings. For ultimately, as the ancestors turn to dust, the "ancestors" become a mixture of their remains and that of the silk shroud, which becomes an indivisible element of those whom it was made to honor.