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Rita Astuti

London School of Economics

A few months after my arrival in Betania, a Vezo village on the western coast of Madagascar, just south of the

administrative and market town of Morondava, I received a postcard from Italy with an aerial view of my home
town. I showed it to my Vezo friends and relatives, and tried to explain how houses, trees and roads appear from

an airplane. Someone then noticed an area that looked quite different from the rest -- it had no houses, no trees

and no roads -- and was surrounded by a massive fence. My explanation that this was the town's cemetery was

greeted with disbelief. People seemed to understand the need for so impressive a fence around the tombs, but

said that they would never dare (tsy mahasaky) build their houses so near the cemetery.

Vezo cemeteries lie in the forest (aala any), far away from the villages (lavitsy mare) and so well hidden

by the vegetation that they are `invisible to the eye' (tsy hita maso). Cemeteries must be hidden in this way

because the sight of tombs makes the Vezo sad and unhappy (mampalahelo); they would also be afraid

(mahatahotsy) if tombs lay too close, let alone within the village itself. In any case, as was often pointed out,

cemeteries are not places one visits very often; one certainly does not go there merely for a stroll

(mitsangatsanga). Indeed, the living approach a cemetery only when they are bearing a corpse (laha manday faty)

or when they have to `work' for the dead.

The different location of Italian and Vezo cemeteries within the territories of their communities can no

doubt be seen as expressing a profound difference in the way Italians and Vezo construe relations between the

living and the dead; it also has the obvious consequence that one cannot look at Vezo cemeteries and at what

they contain in the same way as one would look at an Italian cemetery -- for the simple reason that, as my

informants pointed out, Vezo cemeteries are, in everyday life, `invisible', and people do not wish to see them.

The last chapter of John Mack's book, Madagascar. Islands of the ancestors, is devoted to the funerary

sculpture found in different styles, sizes and forms in many parts of Madagascar. In western Madagascar,

Sakalava and Vezo funerary sculpture is internationally renowned for its erotic wooden figures, often depicted

during copulation and showing oversized phalluses and breasts (figs. 1 and 2). The exoticism and titillation

implicit in western art-book reproductions masks how little is actually known about Sakalava or Vezo funerary

sculpture. If I interpret it correctly, Mack's review of the literature on the subject conveys a sense of

1. Fieldwork was conducted in two Vezo villages, Betania and Belo, between November 1987 and June 1989.
Research in Madagascar was supported by affiliation to the Muse d'Art et d'Archologie of the University of
Antananarivo. Funding was obtained by a Wenner-Gren Grant-in-Aid (1988), and by grants from the Central
Research Fund, University of London; the Centro Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), Rome; the Istituto Italo-
Africano, Rome; and the University of Siena; the British Academy granted me a Post Doctoral Research
Fellowship. I thank these institutions for their support. I also thank John Mack (Museum of Mankind) and Pier
Giorgio Solinas (University of Siena) for inviting me to give versions of this paper; and the Editor of Res for his
useful comments.
dissatisfaction with the few available symbolic interpretations (1986:88). Typically, scholars have drawn attention

to, and provided interpretations of the surprising co-existence of death and sexuality in the cemetery. Verin

(1973), for example, explains it with reference to Malagasy beliefs in the ancestors: "the dead does not die; he

enters a new status by going through all the vicissitudes that bring the living into life: love, conception and

delivery. The sculpture must retrace all the stages in this progression" (1973:88). Lombard (1973), on the other

hand, states that the erotic figures are not pornographic (sic) because the Sakalava do not distinguish between

sexuality and procreation; he proceeds to interpret the erotic representations as a way of expressing the

Sakalava's desire for large numbers of descendants in a country with a low population density, in which the

wealth, authority and prestige of the clan chiefs is directly related to the size of their kin (1973:99). Pourcet

(1986), who follows Verin and Lombard closely, seems more preoccupied with the degeneration of funerary art.

On the one hand, he notes that erotic sculptures are now produced to meet growing tourist demand; on the

other, he argues (only too predictably) that the aesthetic poverty of the whitewashed concrete fences which the

Vezo currently build in substitution of the traditional wood fences reflect the degeneration of a traditional society

under the impact of market relations (1986:34).

The striking feature of all these interpretations is that they are based on the observation of funerary

sculptures standing at the corners of the tombs; these ethnographers look at them as if they were conspicuous

monuments to be kept in sight, akin to memorial stones and sculptures in European cemeteries. It is this gaze

that turns the juxtaposition of death and sexuality into something surprising, hence the need for an explanation.

But as I just pointed out, Vezo cemeteries, tombs, and therefore also funerary sculptures are not meant to be

seen; the erotic figures which scholars have found so intriguing are not visited and observed where they stand on

the corners of tombs. I think that we should take this simple fact seriously, and thus also re-examine the way we

look at tombs and funerary sculptures.

My friends in Betania were completely uninterested in discussing what they call sary porn, literally

pornographic images -- an expression they no doubt adopted from the vazaha (the whites), who in the past

decades have eagerly photographed these `images', or have removed them altogether for the benefit of art

collectors around the world. As far as they were concerned, the sculptures were a custom of the past

(fomban'olo taloha), which people nowadays no longer practice -- and that is all they generally have to say about
it. By contrast, I spent months discussing the `work' (asa) that people had to perform for their dead in order to

2. In the introductory notes to a catalogue for an exhibition of Sakalava sculpture in Antananarivo, Mallet noted
that the erotic figures were first produced in 1900, and that they became a widespread feature of Sakalava
cemeteries only twenty years later (Universit de Madagascar 1963:n.p.), at the time when missionary influence
keep them happy. This work consists in building a cement fence, in place of the impermanent wood fence hastily

erected at the time of burial, if a burial place in an already established, that is, concrete tomb was originally
unavailable. It also includes moulding, raising and carrying concrete crosses to the tomb, again to replace the
wood crosses that had been carried with the coffin at the time of burial. I spent many evenings discussing with

my adoptive family how many bricks we needed, in relation to the number of gaps we wanted to leave in the

fence; how many sacks of cement we had to buy to build both the fence and the crosses; how much wood we

would use for the cross moulds, and the length of the metal rods needed to reinforce the crosses' structure; the

amount of white paint we needed for the crosses, and the colour we should paint the sides -- light blue or light


Mainly because my informants gave me no alternative, I soon forgot about the old wooden sculptures, and

concentrated instead on what was being done with concrete bricks and light green paint. Instead of looking at

fences or crosses that would become `invisible' once they were erected in the forest, I became involved in the

work that people perform on these objects.

I was therefore all the more surprised when the sary porn were mentioned without any probing on my

part. This occurred when a new ornament was found on one of six crosses being built in the courtyard of a

villager in Betania. Below the customary script in black paint (`Ici repose Nentiko, 25.2.1959'), two cement breasts

stuck out, the size of the halved coconut shell with which they had been shaped, the areola carefully painted

black and the nipples red. While my family assured me that they had never seen anything like it before, they

volunteered the suggestion that the cross's breasts were somewhat like (mitovitovy) the erotic sculptures that

were once put on tombs. Among other things, these sculptures had also represented big-breasted women.

began to be felt in the region. He added that the most extreme examples of erotic virtuosity were often found on
fences that enclosed Christian crosses; and suggested that the erotic figures may have been introduced as
`l'expression instinctive d'une thique menace, la manifestation d'un temprament qui va jusqu'au bout de son
originalit pour s'affirmer dans le danger' (1963:n.p.). I have no data to either confirm or contradict Mallet's
hypothesis; its interest, however, lies in the historical context it provides, which questions the essentialism of
most other interpretations that invoke a timeless Malagasy worldview to explain the `meaning' of Sakalava
funerary objects.

3. Wood fences are made with roughly-cut poles hewn directly in the surrounding forest; they are frail and
temporary structures, made up of different sections which are added on every time a new corpse is buried.
Eventually, the whole wooden structure is dismantled, and is substituted with a concrete fence.

4. Although the two rituals are sometimes performed within a short interval of one another, they constitute
distinct enterprises, and it will usually take many years after the fence is built for the wood crosses inside it to be
replaced with concrete ones.
What follows is an analysis of the work that people in Betania perform for the dead. I describe the

making of concrete fences, of concrete crosses in general, and in particular of the breasted cross. I do not suggest

that we take at face value my informants' view that the breasted cross was similar to the old erotic sculptures; so

I do not argue by analogy, that what I say about the new cross applies equally to the old ones. I suggest

something simpler, but possibly of greater consequence for the study of funerary sculpture in general: if one

wandered around the southern cemetery in Betania and came across a cement cross with two breasts sticking

out from the middle, and observed it as it stands in the sand, and began to muse about the juxtaposition of death

and sexuality in the cemetery, one would be far from understanding either this or any other funerary object in

the immediate area, including the cement walls of the tombs. In order to understand those objects, one has to

make a step back to the time when they were being made.

Working for the dead

Building tombs and crosses is `work' (asa) that the living perform for the dead; it is their responsibility, because

the dead desire nice, clean, proper tombs which they cannot build themselves. If the living fail in their duty to

build new fences and crosses, the ancestors will make known their discontent by visiting their descendants with

dreams and minor illnesses. The living will respond to this by calling upon the ancestors to reassure them that
their requests will be met. But if this promis e is not kept, the ancestors may get very angry (meloke mare) and

`make people die' (mahafaty).

Although the living work for the dead out of a sense of duty and under threat, the desires of the dead

coincide in a subtle way with those of the living. For the dead, the performance of the mortuary rituals is a way to

be remembered and taken care of by their descendants; for the living, working for the dead provides a form of

blessing (asantsika ro tsipiranontsika), because when the ancestors are happy, they stop interfering with the life,

dreams, and health of their descendants.

In other words, building solid fences and crosses is a way of separating the dead from the living. This

separation is necessary, indeed vital, for the living, because `the dead and the living are not together, they are

not the same' (ny maty ny velo tsy miaraky, tsy mitovy); there must be a barrier (hefitsy) which keeps them apart

(miavaky), which separates the coolness of the village (manintsinintsy) from the heat of the cemetery (mafana).

The dead will cross the barrier separating them from the living and will interfere with the life of their

descendants if they feel neglected and forgotten. But there is a further reason why the dead may cross the
barrier: `they feel longing for the living' (olo maty manino an'olom-belo). This longing is particularly strong among

people who die in old age and leave behind large numbers of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

The work the living perform for the dead is not simply a way of showing that they remember and honor them,

but is equally a means of appeasing this longing, even if only momentarily, by offering the dead a spectacle of the

life they have left behind.

To understand the longing that the dead feel for the living, and therefore the manner in which the living

try to appease it, one must turn briefly to the way people are allocated to tombs and what this allocation entails.

Vezo tombs fence dead people in; the people inside each fence are said to be `one people' (olo raiky), or `one
raza' (raza raiky). Although the literature has often treated the raza as a unilineal, more or less corporate,

descent group, it can be argued that the raza is a grouping that only exists in cemeteries, whose membership

includes only the bodies buried inside the same fence (Astuti in press).

When a person is buried in a tomb, it enters a raza to which it did not yet belong when it was alive. And

since corpses, as the Vezo remark, cannot be cut up into pieces -- in other words, a person's bones cannot be

buried in more than one tomb -- raza membership is exclusive and divisive: one is buried either with one's
father's or one's mother's group. When people are still alive, however, they have no need to divide themselves.

On the contrary, living people are related equally to their two parents, four grandparents, eight great-

grandparents, and so on; and they acquire descendants through their sons and daughters (including those of

both their sisters and brothers), through their grandsons and granddaughters, and so on. Vezo kinship -- filongoa
-- does not divide people into groups, but creates ever expanding networks of ascendants and descendants.

If we join these two features together, we can begin to appreciate the particular longing that a person

who died in old age feels for the living. During a person's lifetime, one could look upwards and downwards at

6. The word raza (razana in standard Malagasy) is translated in Abinal and Malzac (1987:518) as "les anctres, les
aieux", and firazana as "la gnalogie, la ligne des aieux, famille, tribu, caste". The word karaza, a derivative of
raza, means `kind', type, and indicates groups of objects, animals or people that share some essential
characteristics (see also Bloch 1971:42-3).

7. A person's destination inside a particular tomb is established during its lifetime through the performance of the
ritual of soro (an offering made by a child's father to the raza of the child's mother). If the ritual is performed by a
child's father, the child will be buried in father's tomb; if the ritual is not performed, the child will be buried in
mother's tomb. The fact that the ritual of soro concerns only people's allocation to tombs, while it does not affect
their kinship affiliations in life, was forcefully expressed in the following statement: "[the ritual of soro] does not
buy the child's mouth or the child's flesh, what it buys are the child's bones' (tsy mivily vavany, tsy mivily
nofotsiny, fa taola iy ro nivilin'olo). For a more detailed discussion of this ritual and its implications, see Astuti in
press: ch.6.

8. For a fuller discussion of this point, see Astuti in press:ch.6.

one's ascendants and descendants on all sides. Once one has been laid down inside one's tomb, on the other

hand, one's sight is fenced in: only a small fraction of the people one was related to in life -- only one unilineal

line of the many that used to come within one's view -- are buried and will be buried with oneself. From inside

their fences the dead long for the undividedness of filongoa, and the work of the living for the dead recreates this

around them -- especially around those who died in old age.

Yet all this raises a paradox: the building of a tomb and of the crosses inside is the responsibility of the

people who will be buried in that tomb and will join that raza. These people are the `masters of the work'

(tompon'asa); their leader is the hazomanga, the oldest living person among those who will share the same tomb.

When people act as `masters of the work', they act collectively as future members of a raza to which actually they

do not yet belong. Thus, when the `masters of the work' plan and set money aside for the work, they draw a clear

distinction between themselves and everyone else by referring to `our work' (asantsika, asanay).

Normally, however, such a distinction is never made, because membership of the raza is of no relevance

for the living. It is only when the living work for the dead to make them enjoy the undividedness of filongoa, that

they are forced to experience the divisiveness of the raza -- the same divisiveness that the fences create among

the dead.

Yet despite this dramatic affirmation of differentiation and division that death imposes on the living, the

actual `work for the dead' is done not only by the `masters of the work' but also by a large, undifferentiated

crowd. The `masters of the work' send out invitations to help build the fence; for the cross ritual, they invite the

entire village and all their relatives. As will be seen, this mass participation is a crucial feature of the ritual,
because the dead enjoy being surrounded by all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with no

regard for the raza to which these descendants will belong when they die.

Asa lolo

In order to build a new house for the dead, the living must work inside the cemetery. Before approaching the

tomb, the hazomanga informs the ancestors about what is going to happen, so they will not be surprised (tsy

hotseriky nareo). Then, upon arriving at the cemetery, the hazomanga sprinkles a few drops of a protective

medicine (fanintsina) inside the tomb where the work will be done. The old fence is then dismantled and the

9. The crowd that gathers for the `work of the dead' includes people who are not descendants of the deaceased;
in the course of the ritual, however, all participants come to be regarded as such and contribute to recreate for
the dead their lost vision of filongoa.
work begins.

Remarkably few people of the many who attend this ceremony are actually involved in building the new

fence; only a small number have the requisite skills and stay sober enough to be able to raise a straight wall. The

majority of the men sit around, chatting, eating and drinking in the shade. Those doing the work hold back on the

drink and eat their meal inside the fence, sitting on top of the dead and leaning over the crosses.

The task of the women is to cook and distribute the food. They arrive at the cemetery, accompanied by

the children, carrying pots, buckets, plates, spoons and food; they clear an area near the tomb and turn it into a

kitchen. Food is expected to be good and tasty, and is an important feature in creating a festive mood among the

participants; the same applies to rum, which has to be (and indeed always is) plentiful and free-flowing.

Amusement at the tombs is important. Although the Vezo say that they are not very good at making

`ripe' or fun feasts (fisa masake), people have no difficulty in amusing themselves. Above all, they enjoy dancing,

and they found that having a tape-recorder at their disposal was a great help. Their favorite dance is minotsoky,

which consists of rotating and thrusting the pelvis back and forth, faster and faster, preferably against and in

unison with someone else's. Its sexual overtones are all too obvious, and partly for this reason, adults can enjoy

few opportunities when dancing minotsoky is considered appropriate: the asa lolo is such an occasion.

People stay at the cemetery, dancing and drinking, until the new fence has been completed. At the end

of the meal, after they have finished clearing up and repacking everything they brought from the village, the

women have a chance to examine the work with the rest of the crowd. The few men still at work are pressed to

join the dance, and other dancers join them inside the tomb. When the building is finally over, a voice asks for

silence and attention. As the noise slowly dies down, someone known to be a good orator gives a short speech.

He thanks the crowd for contributing to such a `big work' (asa bevata io); without their help it could not have

been undertaken successfully. But now the work is done, and it is time to disperse and return home (dia ravo

tsika zao holy). The crowd slowly spreads out and heads back to the village; some people are so drunk that they

need help to do so, while others have to be dragged back home.

The core of the ritual is situated between the dismantling of the old fence and the completion of the new one.

During this time, people walk, dance, stamp their feet, drink and eat inside the tomb and over the corpses of the

dead. The asa lolo upsets and temporarily destroys the normal distinction between the cemetery and the village,

between the dead and the living. During the ritual the living bring within the bounds of the cemetery what is

normally outside it. They take life, and with life they take cooking, eating, drinking, dancing and a large crowd of
people. They invade the cemetery with life.

The living do so because they must show remembrance and concern for the dead by providing them

with a new, clean house. In so doing, the living also respond to the longing that the dead feel for life. When the

living stamp their feet as hard as they can and dance erotic dances over the bodies of their ancestors, they

imagine that the dead below them are enjoying the feast; indeed if they were not, the living could expect to be

`dead on the spot' (maty sur place). The large, `undivided' crowd that gathers inside and around the tomb is also

meant to please the dead. As long as the old fence is down and the new one hasn't been raised yet, the dead can

be tantalized with a glimpse of filongoa; for a brief lapse of time, their sight extends once more to include all the

people who participate in the work as their descendants.

Whereas the dismantling of the old, flimsy fence marks the beginning of the dead people's enjoyment of

the spectacle of life, for the living it marks the start of a period of contiguity with the dead that is emotionally

highly charged. Once the fence has been removed, no barrier is left to separate the living from the dead. And yet,

the display of life acted out in such frightening proximity with the dead also proves that the dead are dead --

although music is blasted over their heads, the ancestors cannot join in the dance, or respond to the rhythm of

the music and to the provocations of minotsoky. They remain silent and motionless, listening to life echoing

down through the sand. And thus, at the end, the new fence completed, the living with their pots, buckets, and

empty canisters return home. The dead are left behind inside a new, firmer, and more permanent barrier

separating them from the living.

Asa lakroa

Building a concrete fence is only the first stage of the work the living perform for their ancestors. It is followed by
a cross ritual, in which all the wooden crosses inside one tomb are replaced with concrete ones. The cross ritual

lasts between five and seven days. It starts with the moulding of the crosses at the village (manily lakroa); during

the following days, the names of the deceased are engraved and the crosses are painted over. On the afternoon

before the day the crosses will be carried to the tomb, they are raised to a standing position (mananga lakroa). A

meal is then organized for the whole village, in which huge quantities of food are consumed; the following dawn

the crosses are brought to the cemetery (atery an-dolo). Wakes are held throughout this period; the first few

10. The cross ritual can be seen as a form of `secondary burial' in a context in which it is faly (taboo) to remove
the dead from their place of burial.
nights they are quiet affairs, but on the last night before the crosses are removed the wake turns into a major

entertainment that is meant to draw a large and noisy crowd.

In its constitutive elements -- the wakes, the communal meal, and the procession to the cemetery -- the

asa lakroa replicates a funeral; the most obvious difference between them, of course, is that instead of gathering

around a corpse, the crowd assembling for an asa lakroa gathers around concrete crosses. But in the course of

the ritual the crosses are transformed into surrogates of the missing corpses and also into the dead persons

brought back into life. Through their double referent, the crosses thus permit the play of contrasting emotions in

ways that the frightening presence of the corpse itself had not allowed.

When people first meet to mould the crosses (manily lakroa), they spend a good deal of time discussing

their shape and size. The shape of the crosses varies considerably, ranging from a traditional cross to a diamond-

shaped object with quite elaborate decorations. Sometimes bold and innovative designs are rejected because of

their technical impracticality. The main consideration, however, is that the dead person's seniority be reflected in

the shape and size of the cross. Children's crosses should be short, narrow, and with few frills; the children's

grandparents' and the parents' crosses must be much taller, wider and heavily decorated. The crosses are

explicitly made to identify with the persons they represent; later in the ritual, the crosses become these people,

as their size, weight, and beauty recreate the bodily presence of the dead among the living.

Once the crosses have been moulded, they are carefully moved to a central point of the courtyard,

where they are lined up side by side, the senior person's cross to the north and the others ranked southwards in

descending order of seniority. The top of the cross is always oriented eastwards and its base westwards; this is

how dead bodies lie during funerals and inside the tombs. After the crosses have dried for one day, names, and if

known, dates of birth and death are engraved on the crosses, preceded by French expressions like ici gt, ici


When the crosses are completely dry, they are given two coats of paint: the front and the back are

white, the sides are a light blue or green, and the lettering is in black. Once the paint has dried, the fencing of

coconut branches built to protect the crosses is dismantled. Everything is ready for the ritual's last stage.

The day before the crosses are removed from the village, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the `crosses

are raised' (mananga lakroa). They are raised in descending order of seniority with the help of a wooden frame

built for this purpose. The crowd gathers in a semi-circle around the crosses as they are lifted up; once they are

all standing, people begin chanting church hymns.

The raising of the crosses arouses intense emotions among the onlookers, especially those most closely
related to the persons represented by the crosses. In one instance, when the cross of a woman who had died

giving birth to her eleventh child was raised, her children were moved to tears. The woman's husband later

explained to me that raising dead people's crosses in this way is a `very good thing' (raha soa mare), because

people who were unable to get to the funeral in time can compensate for this by seeing the lifting of the dead

person's cross; also, children who did not know their mother in life are given the opportunity of seeing her

(farany fa hitan-drozy nenin-drozy, `at last they see their mother').

Taken together, the reasons this man gave of why the cross ritual is a good thing (mahasoa azy) are

paradoxical. First he implied that the ritual re-enacts the funeral; in this context, the cross is a substitute for the

corpse. Second, however, he indicated that the children see not just an image of their mother's corpse but their

mother herself (nenin-drozy). In other words, the man was stating that the cross not only substitutes the

woman's dead body, but also recalls her presence as a living person. This dual representation is expressed by the

act of of raising the crosses from a flat to a vertical position. As long as they lie flat on the sand, the crosses

represent the deceased as they lie, lifeless, in their tombs. But by raising them to a standing position, it is as if

they and those they represent were brought back to life: hence the emotionally charged atmosphere among

their living kin.

The dimension of life incorporated in the crosses is crucial to the cross ritual's general understanding.

Two seemingly incompatible performances are going on at the same time: the dead are brought back to life, and

their funeral is re-enacted with a mock corpse. One reading of this is that the living can be moved to perform

mock funerals for mock corpses only if they have first recreated the image of live bodies and lively lives; the case

of Be-nono (the cross with two concrete breasts) which I discuss below lends support to this interpretation. A

second, complementary reading is that the contrasting imagery conveyed by the cross -- both live ancestor and

mock corpse -- accomodates the contrasting desires of the dead and the living. Whereas the dead are given an

opportunity to savour and remember life as part of the service they expect from the living, this opportunity is

granted by re-enacting a funeral which ends, as all funerals do, with the dead within their tombs and the living in

the village.

The co-existence within the cross of a corpse and of a dead person brought back into life is acted out more clearly

during the final wake. Although wakes are held from the day the crosses have been moulded, these are minor

events, attended only by the `masters of the work' -- there is some singing but very little rum, and most

participants leave silently half way through the night. By contrast, the last wake is a major social event involving a
considerable crowd, which far exceeds any other kind of funerary gathering. People coming to this final wake

have high expectations, for it is understood that the `masters of the work' will provide a good night's

entertainment, typically by distributing large quantities of rum and by renting a baffle, a huge tape-recorder

equipped with screaching loudspeakers and a somewhat limited number of tapes.

Within the general context of the ritual, then, cross wakes seem to replicate funeral wakes. This

similarity was pointed out by my informants; but they also stressed that whereas people are sad (malahelo) at

funerary wakes, they are happy (falifaly) at the cross wakes. In fact, this is not entirely accurate. Not all funeral

wakes are sad events, nor are all cross wakes happy. The emotions expressed at funerals depend on the status of

the deceased; whereas the death of a young person (mbo tanora) is considered a waste (mosera) and is met with

sadness, the death of an old person (olo fantitra), who has lasted a long time (fa naharitsy) and has produced

many descendants, moves people to happiness. Similarly, the mood that prevails during a cross wake depends on

the status of the cross. In contrast with the funeral wake, however, this mood is always intrinsically ambiguous.

At one level, the status of the cross is that of the dead person that the cross represents and personifies -

- a child, a young woman, an old grandparent. At a more abstract level, the status of the cross derives from which

of the cross's two images, of a live ancestor and of a corpse, the organizers and participants of the ritual wish or

are asked to emphasize during the ritual itself. In order to understand how the choice between the two images is

formulated, we must return to the final wake's entertainment and to the baffle.

During the months leading up to the cross ritual, my adoptive family held endless meetings to discuss, and often

to argue about, the renting of the baffle. This was a highly controversial issue, because one of the women

involved had strong objections. As the mother of the only child buried in the family tomb, she argued that it was

improper to have music and dance when one of the crosses was that of a small child (aja mbo kelikely); because

the memory of her child made her sad (malahelo), she wanted people to sing hymns rather than dance during

the wake. Although her objection was taken seriously, those supporting the baffle pointed out that a wake

deprived of music was at risk of being deserted. In the end, the family opted for the baffle; the crowd was large

and the wake loud and highly successful.

On another occasion a similar argument to that of the child's mother met more understanding, possibly

because four of the six crosses were for small children. The wake was held without any music, and participants

complained loudly of boredom and lack of rum; but although the crowd was rather listless, the singing lasted the

whole night. On this occasion, the organizers chose to emphasize the cross's first aspect, that which represents
the children's corpses, and participants in the wake were asked accordingly to perform a de facto funerary wake.

This, however, is only one side of the story. The other image of the cross, that of a live ancestor, was

allowed to take shape in a second, `alternative' wake held alongside the `official' one I have just described. The

protagonist of this alternative wake was Nentiko's cross, the cross with two large breasts which people

throughout the ritual called Be-nono (big breasts).

The final wake was to be held on a Friday. It was rumored that it would be a quiet affair, with no music

and dancing, so some friends suggested that if I wanted to see a `ripe' wake I should go with them to Thursday's

event. That Thursday night many more people than is customary for a penultimate wake gathered at the house

where the crosses were. They had come to have fun with Be-nono.

Because it was only the eve of the final wake, no lamp lit the yard; people gathered in the darkness and

appeared to be waiting restlessly for something to happen. Eventually some women began to sing church hymns,

and this seemed to break the ice. Groups of young men began to dance among themselves, but as soon as some

women began dancing minotsoky, they broke off to join them. The dancing, singing and drinking then continued

the whole night.

Although the crosses were still in a corner of the yard and would be moved to the center only the

following day, that Thursday night, people found them already standing. This fact is very significant. I suggested

above that crosses lying flat on the sand are substitues for the corpses, whereas by raising them the dead persons

they represent are brought back to life. Hence, had Be-nono still been lying on the sand on the eve of the final

wake, she would have been unable to enjoy the dancing and singing in her honor. Furthermore, by raising the

crosses a day earlier, the organizers divided the wake into two separate events, one centered on Be-nono and the

other centered on the children's crosses. On this occasion, the duality of the cross's referent was formally and

explicitly acted out by confining the two contrasting images, that of a live ancestor and that of a corpse, to two

separate wakes -- one in which people were asked to be sad, and the other in which they were expected to have


When the time came to take the crosses to the cemetery, the childrens' crosses and Be-nono received a radically

different treatment. The people who carried the children's crosses left the courtyard and proceeded in a quiet,

straight, and uninterrupted procession to the tombs; although they had started later than Be-nono, they reached

the tombs much earlier, and were left waiting for a long time before `she' was finally delivered inside her tomb.

Be-nono's journey had started at the break of dawn, when she had left the courtyard heading
westwards in the opposite direction to that of the cemetery. Initially only a smallish crowd accompanied her,

mainly young men, children, and a few women said to have an informal joking relationship (ampiziva) with the

`masters of the work', and hence with Nentiko too; among people linked by this relationship everything is

allowed and everything must be endured. Initially at least, only these people were thought to dare (mahasaky)

taking Nentiko on her eventful tour, suggesting that the treatment Nentiko was going to receive raised a certain

degree of apprehension and fear; once the initiative was taken by the ampiziva, however, many more people

joined in, including some of the `masters of the work'. The procession was frenzied from the start, and became

increasingly so each time the men who ran carrying the cross stopped and stuck Be-nono in the sand: with the

crowd pressing around them, the cross bearers danced minotsoky with her, rubbing themselves against her and

tweaking her nipples. As this weaving and turning, stopping and dancing was repeated many times, the crowd

increased in size and demanded rum, a few drops of which were poured over the cross's breasts (fig.3).

Be-nono's journey progressed in a series of spurts, halts, and sharp jolts; men struggled to squeeze a

shoulder under the cross, those at the back pushing forward and the others pushing backwards. Around them,

women roused the men in their efforts, indeed arousing them by dancing provocatively and swinging their hips

against the men's pelvises. As soon as some bearers reacted to the provocation and began to dance with the

women, other men took their place at the cross. Finally, after a few final stops at the edge of the cemetery, Be-

nono moved close to her fence and in a last, frantic run was delivered to her tomb. The young men who took her

inside the fence to stick her upright in the sand gave her a final spasm of minotsoky and a bit more rum (figs. 4

and 5). The hazomanga then asked them to leave. The usual thanksgiving speech praised the crowd because no

fights or accidents had occurred, and exhorted it to return home peacefully and quietly. As the living headed back

home, Be-nono and the other crosses were left behind inside their fence.

A few days after the ritual was concluded, I asked the hazomanga and his wife who had organized it about the

`meaning' (ino dikany?) of the breasts on Nentiko's cross. They answered that Nentiko was a `great grandparent'

(dady-be) who had `brought up many people' (namelo olo maro ie); she had had many children, grandchildren,
and great grandchildren; the breasts were a `playful joke' (kisaky). When I asked whether Nentiko had actually

had big breasts, they laughed and told me that that was besides the point.

11. It is difficult to translate the term kisaky satisfactorily. I have opted for `playful joke' to render both the fact
that it is an act of teasing which is done light-heartedly to have fun with, rather than at the expense of, the
recipient. Dahl 1968:112 translates kizake as `moquerie'.
We saw earlier that the living work for the dead in order to make them happy, and that they do so

because happy ancestors do not come to trouble the living. In Nentiko's case, her grandchildren and great-

grandchildren decided that she deserved a special treatment, because she had been such a wonderful parent.

And so, on the cross that was to bring Nentiko back to life, they stuck two concrete breasts, which represented

Nentiko as the prolific source and support of many descendants. It is hard to surmise what Nentiko would have

thought of the breasts herself; but it is easy to say what effect they had on the crowd that surrounded her. Like

the pop music that usually accompanies a final wake, Be-nono's breasts gave additional zest to the dances,

clapping and inebriation, and became the main focus of attraction for the large crowd that closed in around the

cross. This crowd is what Nentiko longs for inside her fence -- it is the life that she left behind her when she died,

and which has since then reproduced, increased and multiplied itself. The breasts were a means, a highly

successful one, of offering Nentiko a particularly pleasurable sight of life and of recreating around her the

undividedness of filongoa.

Nentiko was thought to have enjoyed the feast and to have been made happy as a result. But why were

the breasts a `playful joke'? To appreciate this, we must return to the children's crosses, which remind us as they

reminded the participants in the dances with Be-nono, that cement crosses are not merely the beloved ancestors

brought back to life, but also surrogates for their corpses. The children's crosses, in other words, ensured that

Nentiko would be brought back to life in the context of a funeral, thus ultimately ensuring that she would be

delivered back to her tomb and her life would be brought to an end. Although there is no doubt in people's mind

that a cross's only destination is inside a tomb, the cross ritual plays on the possibility of bringing the ancestors

back to the village, and at the same time establishes a device for sending, or returning, ancestors and their

crosses to where they belong. The breasts on Nentiko's cross were indeed a successful device for satisfying her

longing for life, but they could not prevent the ritual's final outcome.

Thus in the end, after a long, wild night of amusement, Nentiko's cross was taken out of the village and

away from life; Nentiko was carried to the cemetery and back into her fence. After opening a window on life in

the village, that window was shut. The spectacle of life reverted to a funeral in which Nentiko was proved once

more to be dead, and Be-nono's concrete breasts were proved to be only a `playful joke' -- an instance of

`technological enchantment' (Gell 1988, 1992) with which the living lured Nentiko back into her fence.

When people return to their homes and discuss the organization, performance and successful conclusion of the
work for the dead, they feel a great sense of accomplishment. They imagine that their ancestors are pleased by

the attention they have received from their descendants, most especially by the chance they have had of

appeasing their longing for life. As far as the living themselves are concerned, their work has achieved an

opposite result of equal importance. Thanks to the new fence in the cemetery and the concrete crosses, they

have succeeded in temporarily separating themselves from the dead. Although the asa lolo forces an unpleasant

contiguity with death by invading the cemetery with life, in the end the living depart leaving behind them a great

and lasting fence, which not only divides the dead among themselves, but also divides the dead from the living,

the raza from filongoa. The asa lakroa brings the dead back to life inside the village itself, but only as a temporary

treat by the living; soon the dead are carried back to the cemetery and once again away from life.

Both kinds of work accomplish something rather paradoxical. Both bring life to the dead and bring death

in close proximity with the living; yet the final outcome is the separation of death from life. At the end of their

efforts, the living are pleased because their work has recreated the barrier between themselves and the

ancestors, between the village and the cemetery; the dead are happy, and when they are happy they keep away

from the living. Yet the work of the living for the dead is never definitive, because the longing of the dead and

their desire to be remembered is never entirely and definitively appeased. Appeasement could be found only if

the asa lolo and the asa lakroa actually gave life back to the dead, instead of staging a `playful joke' on them. But

despite the dances, the music, and the rum, and even despite Nentiko's concrete breasts, in the end, the dead

are dead.

If we were to go for a stroll around the southern cemetery of Betania -- something that the Vezo would never do,

we would come across one tomb which contains many smallish crosses, and in the middle a large cross with two

cement breasts, the areola painted black and the nipples red. Not knowing anything about the crowd that

danced around this cross, about the rum that was poured on her breasts, about the frenzied procession that took

the cross from the sand dunes to the tomb where it now stands; not knowing that the dead have a strong longing

12. In particular, people stress the `beauty' and `goodness' (raha soa) of concrete. Concrete is considered a `good
thing' because it lasts a long time (maharitsy). The dead are thought to like it because it extends their material
presence in the cemetery. Older people would often point to a small baby, a grandchild or great-grandchild:
thanks to concrete, they would say, when the child was grown up and they were long dead, she would still be
able to see her grandparents' tomb and the crosses with their names. The living, however, appreciate the
durability of concrete because it allows them to build an even firmer barrier between themselves and the dead:
their expectation is that, once wooden fence and crosses have been replaced, the dead will have no reason to
complain about their `house' for a very long time, and so keep at a distance from their living descendants. The
durability of concrete can thus be seen as articulating the paradox between the dead's desire to be remembered
by the living, and the latter's desire to be forgotten by the dead.
for life, and that the breasts were a `playful joke', one may well agree with my Vezo friends that this cross is

rather similar, at least in intent, to the ancient erotic sculptures; and thereby think, as was suggested for the

erotic sculptures of the past, that this cross brings life, sexuality and procreation inside the cemetery itself.

But if one looked at the same cross again, with the knowledge of asa lolo and asa lakroa, one would be

seeing another object entirely, one which does not bring life and death together inside the cemetery, but which

has been used as a device to separate death from life.

The fact that the same object can be looked at and perceived in such different ways testifies to what

Nicholas Thomas has called `the conceptual difficulties' that objects present to an observer; such difficulties

originate in the fact that objects appear to remain the same -- in their material structure -- even when the context

in which they are viewed is transformed (1989:41). Thus, if you take only the context of the tombs into account,

you see Be-nono's breasts as a token of life inside the tomb; if you integrate the tombs into the context of Vezo

notions of death, you see the same cross and the same breasts as a `playful joke' with which the living show

remembrance and care for the dead, while they lure them away from the coolness of life in the village.

As Thomas points out, despite our common sense bias towards perceiving the material continuity of an

object rather than its contextual identity, it is nonetheless obvious that `the intrinsic properties of a thing are only

salient in so far as they are recognized and used practically' (1989:41). In other words, while it is common sense

that if we look at Be-nono, we see the same object at all times and in all places, it is nonetheless obvious that this

is not the case -- Be-nono is a different object when she lies flat in the sand, when she stands upright inside the

courtyard, and when she stands in the sand inside the tomb. The suggestion I am making here, of course, is that

contextualization must prevail over common sense.

This suggestion makes us all the more aware of the fact that in the study of the ancient erotic sculptures

common sense seems to have prevailed over contextualization. Ethnographers such as Verin, Lombard, Pourcet,

examined the sculptures, the erotic embraces, the huge phalluses and breasts on display around the tombs, as if

context were irrelevant to the perception of those objects -- as if an erotic sculpture is and remains an erotic
sculpture in any place and at any time.

The common sense of de-contextualization prevailed -- but why? The answer seems to lie in the very

simple ethnocentric mistake that the various scholars who studied erotic sculptures made when they visited Vezo

13. A notable exception to the kind of essentialist interpretations of Sakalava sculptures I have mentioned above,
is Hardyman 1968. At the outset of his review, he lists the limitations of his enquiry, among which is the fact that
he failed to obtain certain essential details such as `le rle des sculptures dans les rituels funrailles ou autres
pratiques raligieuses ou sociales' (1968:269).
cemeteries. They assumed that Vezo cemeteries and the objects they contain can be approached and looked at

as if they were analogous to the Italian cemetery with which I began this paper: places filled with objects

whereby the living remember the dead. The consequence of this presumption is that they looked at the objects

in the cemetery as if they were meant to be seen.

By now, however, we know that Vezo cemeteries are places `invisible to the eye' (tsy hita maso), which

people do not visit and from which they keep away, and thus that the objects in the cemetery are equally

`invisible'. I would therefore suggest that the context for the study of any object contained in the cemetery must

be this `invisibility'.

But how can we then `look' at such objects? The material I have discussed indicates that the way to

study fences and crosses -- the funerary objects that the Vezo produce today -- is by looking at the work that

produced them. We should not look at fences, but we should join in the effort with which the living create

barriers to contain the dead; we should not look at crosses, but we should join in the `playful joke' whereby the

dead are given a spectacle of the life they long for, and are then returned to the cemetery.

And what about the funerary sculptures of the past? As my informants suggested, we could argue that

Be-nono is analoguous to the sculptures, the one simply a modern version of the other. But as I mentioned at the

outset, this is not the line of argument I wish to take; as I have just suggested, the only way I could argue that the

funerary objects of the past are analagous to the funerary objects of the present is by knowing how people in the

past worked for the dead -- for it is only this work, rather than the objects themselves, that can reveal whether

also in the past the living used

`invisible' objects to lure away the dead.


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PHOTOGRAPHS: list of captions

Figs. 1 and 2: funerary sculptures photographed in 1988 in the cemetery of Antalitoko.

Fig. 3: A pause in Be-nono's journey towards the cemetery, when rum is poured over her breasts.

Fig. 4: Be-nono is finally delivered to her tomb.

Fig.5: Be-nono now stands inside her fence.

[please ignore the numbering in blue felt-pen on the back of the photographs]

[all photographs were taken by the author]