Kate Griewisch is an ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer spending a year in Madagascar. The program relies on coordinators who facilitate the young adults’ ministry and provide mentoring and spiritual guidance. To support a coordinator, go to www.elca.org/missionarysponsorship.
On All Saints Day here in Madagascar we celebrated Fety ‘ny Maty, which literally means “Party of the Dead.” This is an important Malagasy holiday and everyone has the day off, so I canceled all my English classes.
One of my site supervisor’s family members, Marcellin, who is also an English teacher, offered to take me to the cemetery so I could see their traditions. I immediately said “yes” and we hopped on his motorbike and headed to the cemetery that I had passed many times before on my bike. When we got there it was completely different from the lifeless, abandoned graveyard that I had seen before. There were people and flowers everywhere!
I followed Marcellin to the grave of his younger brother who had died at age 19 from a blood disorder. The graves here are aboveground tombs and most of them have a cross at the head. Some, like the one for Marcellin’s brother, have a gate or cage around them. On Fety ‘ny Maty everyone comes out to clean the graves and remove the bones to rewrap them. I didn’t see anyone remove bones, but almost everyone was scrubbing, repairing, or picking up trash at the graves. It is also customary to bring flowers to place on the grave. I didn’t know this so I came empty-handed, but I enjoyed walking around the cemetery to see all the graves decorated and clean.
When I asked Marcellin if this was a sad day for the people or if they were happy, he said that they were happy. I have a hard time imagining being happy about going to visit the grave of my brother (thankfully he is alive and well though!), but when I looked around I didn’t see anyone who looked upset or mournful. At least for the Christians, this was a day to celebrate the promise of eternal life after death and the hope that their lost loved ones are now in heaven. Despite the setting, I too began to feel my spirits lift and even enjoyed some food as part of the festivities. It was not at all what I expected when I arrived at the graveyard, but I am thankful for the reminder that I should celebrate life and rejoice with all the saints.