Of Tombs, Flowers and Garbage: All Souls’ Day 2010

“All of this basically reflects what Terry Eagleton, the British Marxist and lapsed Catholic, tells about postmodernists and their view on death and evil: ‘They learn it from watching horror movies.” —Philippine Daily Inquirer Editorial (1 November 2010)

Almost empty Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina on All Souls' Day

My cousins and I visited our dearly departed relatives in Loyola Memorial earlier today. Surprisingly, on “All Souls’ Day”, there weren’t many visitors. Perhaps it’s because our juvenile government forgot to check which day is “All Saints’ Day” and which is “All Souls’ Day”. I miss President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s “holiday economics”.

Anyway, I’d like to write here that visiting cemeteries, particularly on either of these two days, is a way of remembering and living our culture and history. The Spaniards arrived here in the Philippines with the new religion of Catholicism that placed respect on remembering the souls of the dead. But even before their arrival, pre-Hispanic natives already had their concepts of soul, death, and eternal life. These could be attested to by the mummies in Ifugao as well as the gold orifices or death masks found in many parts of the country. There were also designated areas in communities where the dead would be kept or deposited.

When the Spaniards arrived, they brought with them the Western idea of cemeteries or what would be known for centuries as “Campo Santos”. It was beginning the Spanish era that Filipinos began the practice of visiting their dead loved ones, offering flowers and candles, and of course, prayers.

Masses said on 2 November had the catafalque- a coffin with no body inside. Black vestments used to be worn too

And this was what mattered then: the prayers for the dead relatives and friends. The Church teaches that souls who have yet to be fully reconciled with God at the moment of death go to a place where they are to be “purged” of their sins. That place is Purgatory. It is believed that the souls in Purgatory can pray for their loved ones but they cannot pray for themselves. They need the prayers of loved ones and friends for their souls to be purged and brought as soon as possible to the loving and eternal embrace of God.

Nuns offering prayers

It is also here though when the Devil torments these souls. Actually, it is at the moment of death that the greatest battle would be waged against the Evil One. It is at that point where the dying is tempted to turn away from God, to despair, to capitulate and believe that his sins cannot be forgiven or that his life is fruitless. It is also here that one is tempted to be angry at God for terminating one’s life. But there are also the holy people who undergo much temptation to believe that they do not need the forgiveness of God because of their very righteousness. It is at the point of death that one is really tempted to either turn away from God or feel one no longer needs Him.

Hence, the dead needs are prayers. Lots of it. Our culture then is rich in many practices for the dead.

Lighted Candles dot the spacious memorial park

On 1 November, like our Mexican and Latin American brothers, we troop to the cemeteries, clans and all, bringing food and drink along with mats, prayer books and Rosaries to spend a whole day praying for our missed relatives and friends and also reuniting with relatives over food. We enjoy the company of both the dead and the living. At the same time, trips to cemeteries are opportunities to expand one’s knowledge on family and even, Philippine history.

This tomb stone of Donato Nable Arellano found near our family's plot is still in Spanish, something common then

If one luckily has relatives in the older cemeteries such as La Loma, San Agustin Crypt and Manila North Cemetery, then one can also observe the architectural and artistic styles of the old mausoleums. Some mausoleums in Manila North Cemetery are so grand and whimsical that one of them is ala Egyptian Pyramids with Sphinxes! I remember vaguely when we little ones would go to my aristocratic paternal grandmother’s side to visit their relatives in La Loma where the mausoleums featured Corinthian, Doric and Ionic columns with Greek/Roman themed tombs and where the tomb inscriptions are either in Latin or Spanish. Now that lola’s dead (today’s her 2nd death anniversary), we no longer visit her parents and uncles and aunts’ tombs in La Loma. I’d like to though one of these days.

In Manila North Cemetery too, many of our former presidents and their families are buried. Famous artists, writers, statesmen and academics can be found in these older cemeteries.

Sadly, our Filipino culture is being commercialized, if not, bastardized by yet another very Western tradition: Halloween. Though Halloween was formerly still based on respect for the dead, it is now nothing more but a Hollywood, consumeristic, if not, sinful, display of human/animalistic tendencies. We dress up in the scariest/funniest/silliest costumes to get high, drunk and debauched, compromising the following days of praying, remembering and reflecting on our dead loved ones.

“I have a hang-over. You guys just go to the cemetery.”

The garbage left behind by November 1 visitors in the cemetery

This line is slowly picking up the pace, and it is saddening. But even IN THE CEMETERIES, when people visit, some have forgotten the true spirit (no pun intended) behind visiting the dead in cemeteries. Some sing loudly, eat excessively, drink boisterously, laugh gregariously as if they are not in the company of the dead, as if there are no people who go to the cemetery with much anguish and sadness for their departed ones. Not to mention, the garbage and stench living people leave!

When the living these days visit the dead, sometimes, I’d like to believe, the dead would just wish the living would leave them alone what with their noise, trash and outright irreverence. Why, they even come in sandos, shorts and those ubiquitous “chinelas”. It’s a sure sign of how twisted our view on death is nowadays, how we no longer approach it with trembling, somberness and respect. Some of us don’t even believe in it!

My Grandparents: Capt. Felixberto Barba de Jesus and Ester Pilapil de Jesus

A simple bouquet, two lighted candles, and a recitation of the Rosary, the singing of Dies Irae and the praying of litanies for the dead would do. It’s cheap, environmental friendly and meaningful. The Filipino practice of reuniting near the tombs of loved ones is not a sin. It only becomes sinful when the living forget the dead and the very fact of death.

Indeed, a potential threat to Filipinos is for them to succumb to the typical shallow ideas or concepts of life, death, spirit and final judgment: the ones presented in blood-fests from Halloween Hollywood movies. It’s about time we return to our more sensible and meaningful idea of death and life.

The practice of visiting and praying for dead hecho ayer.

About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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