The Covid-19 epidemic has touched our lives in more ways than we can fathom. For the Malagasy, we hold the departed in our memories and high respect by observing sacred rituals and ceremonies around funeral processions and care for the departed’s family. However, strict Covid guidelines have affected many everyday things, especially in dealing with death and its logistics.
Rary shares her heart-wrenching story with MadaLiving on how her family dealt with the death of her beloved grandfather and how Covid will drastically shape and change how the Malagasy people will handle death.
I was on the phone with my father-in-law when my brother told me the news.
Simple words with heavy meaning. Within a couple of hours, gp (grandpa) was gone.
A pain I knew so well already overcame me. The world has lost yet another heartbeat.
My gp left Madagascar when I was 8 and helped my parents raise my brother and I in Switzerland. He was a retired university professor of philosophy, a veterinarian, and a brilliant musician. I’m sure you understand, our grandparents had millions of jobs back in the days. He left my gm (grandma) behind who was taking care of building their dream house. He was supposed to stay only for a couple of years. He was able to visit all the children who moved to Europe and was ever so happy about those reunions. Then he got sick and needed to make his stay more permanent. My gm flew to Switzerland to take care of him. I was very lucky at that time, gm would cook food, gp would tell stories, and teach us music. Their expression of love went beyond time spent with us, it weaved through their food, how they supported our growth and our education. However, gm got really sick too, got diagnosed with cancer and left us all shattered in 2016. Especially him. The burial was done in Madagascar and my gp accompanied her. Despite him having to come back to Europe for his medical check ups, he never boarded the plane.
The last time I saw my gp alive was at my wedding, summer of 2019, in Madagascar. Little did I know this would have been the last time. Little did the world know we were on the verge of the biggest sanitary crisis. Little did we know that we wouldn’t be able to travel anymore. However, distance never bothered us as we always kept in touch on the phone or via Facebook. Yes, my gp taught himself how to use every possible technology so we never lost touch.
I was prepared for separation but not for loss and grief.
It was a cold night in October. I called my mom. She’s lost her dad. There is nothing that prepares you for death. Nothing. Now the question was, how do we get to Tana to prepare his funeral. We tried to make plans and fly to Nosy-be as the airport of Tana was closed. Then drive the 19 hour drive from Nosy-be to the capital. We were ready to go regardless of circumstances as we were so consumed by grief. The harsh reality was that no one could go there and due to the propagation of Covid in Mada, it would have been dangerous to delay the funeral.
This was the second shock wave we endured. I remember when my gm passed, we’d kept her in a funeral home in France for a couple of days and flew her to Madagascar to our house for another 3 days where family and friends could visit and pay their respect. In this covid time, none of that was possible. We were not able to visit my gp and family wasn’t allowed to visit him after his death was announced. He stayed at the morgue until the day of his funeral. This broke my heart. A big part of coping with one’s departure is to be able to say goodbye and the fact that it wasn’t possible at all made it really difficult. (I still find it hard to believe that he’s gone)
So we did our best to prepare for a long distance funeral. My aunt, cousins and a couple of friends were there to bring his clothes for funeral day. It was the suit we tailor made for my wedding. Back in Europe, we all gathered to buy the lambas that would envelop him. The tradition is that the children and grandchildren each have a lamba, this is our traditional silk cloth. It is wrapped in this order starting with the youngest grandchildren close to the body until finished with the oldest child. I don’t know if my family even knew the direct meaning of that but my dad told me something I’ll always keep in my heart. The descendants are the wealth of a family and the youngest ones need to be closer to their heart. Did he say that to make us feel better? Perhaps. It did work as I prayed my lambas would embrace him as hard as possible. The last lamba is always red, it is the Lambas mena the one made especially for funerals. It is red because it is a royal colour and also to avoid any leaks to stain through. We then called the guardian of the family tomb and told him to cut the grass for my gp’s arrival in his last home. This is another aspect of our tradition, once there’s a death, the grass in front of the tombs are cut and it is left growing until a new member arrives. I made sure I had a flower reef sent, my mom and her brother prepared the funeral ceremony and the obituary is then shared in the Midi Madagasikara newspaper. Finally, I prepared a song with the voices of every family member to be played on the day of his burial: Tsaroanay tokoa izao. This was the first song he ever taught us on the piano because it was my gm’s favourite song.
My family in Mada was able to gather in a small community the day of the funeral, they brought the lambas as well as the memorabilias we wanted him to keep. Due to Covid, the hospital had a special little house to do the wrapping ceremony. They have also already prepared my gp in a special plastic wrap to avoid propagating bacteria and everyone present had to spray an antibacterial solution from head to toe every 30min. I gathered my family scattered all throughout Europe and Madagascar on a Zoom call. Thanks to my cousins’ phones, we were able to participate in the ceremony the best we could. I thank God everyday that there wasn’t any internet issue the whole day. We prayed on our end and had the translation of the whole ceremony from my dad. That’s when we learned a lot about our rites and how the lambas are used and in which order. I found it really fascinating and also interesting why our parents never really told us anything. This is how I realized that’s what they want for them. Malagasy parents don’t vocalise these sort of feelings as they don’t want to risk destiny in thinking about death. However, I think it’s so important to speak about death as a way for us children to never forget.
I’m not going to hide that it was difficult not to be able to kiss him goodbye on his forehead like we always do when we greet him. But he looked amazing and at peace in his beautiful suit. They then proceeded to his family tomb, I was surprised to see there were many chairs installed (still socially distanced) and that there were more people than I could imagine. You see, my biggest fear was that he was going to be alone. Yet the whole time, there were always so many people ready to help even at the hospital. When he arrived, our family pastor led the prayers and the hymns. There is something so powerful in our voices when we all come together and I could only hope that somehow, he felt it too. When our song came up, we were all emotional. His only child left in Madagascar was there and we were all singing our hearts out, hoping he knew we were there.
When our song was over, it was time to bring him to his last house. Malagasy tombs are something out of this world. It’s strong construction sometimes exceeds those of the living. You really understand the care for our ancestors when you come across any Malagasy tombs. You also understand that the spirit world is as important as the physical world. My great aunt was the last one buried there and with my gp joining, she was moved to her bed and my gp was put in the center. It’s the men of the family or male friends that carry the body inside. They are often given a little shot of alcohol to give them courage and cleanse before entering the home of the spirits. Everyone could then say their last goodbyes, and were even able to on the phone enter the tomb and say goodbye before the closing of the doors. When the procession came to a close they all gave their sympathies to my aunt and cousin. At this point, this beautiful day was over and everyone was sprayed with antibacterial solutions and drove back home.
In a Covid-free world, we would have gathered in the family home and have a feast. Instead, my aunt hosted a small gathering of all those who helped and an abundance of meat was shared with everyone as per tradition. Back in Europe, we had dinner ready for our virtual family meal. We have cried over the loss of our precious gp but this was the time to celebrate his life. We celebrated all of his achievements and quirky, signature jokes. We weren’t physically there but technology helped us go through this tough time together in the respect of our traditions. It was the most memorable and most important last gift we could have given gp.
This was a difficult piece to write and I’m not sure I can re-read it without bursting into tears again as I relive this moment from the beginning. I wanted to share this with you as I know so many people right now may have lost a loved one or are going through a difficult time. I want to tell those people that although difficult, those that are gone will ALWAYS carry us in their spirit as we are made of the same heart, we will always carry them in ours. It is the way of life and what I find incredibly beautiful with Malagasy people is our resilience in hardship. When I find this within myself too, I’m so grateful for my ancestors' spirit. I also want this to be a love letter to my gp, whose last video to us was him saying “I think so I am”. I want to honor his proud hypersensitivity and the ways he taught us to always think with your reason and your heart.
I am the luckiest grand-daughter.