We visited my mother’s grave two days before the November 1 rush making it a pleasant and comfortable experience. She is buried in a church crypt so there is a roof over our heads with light and electric fans. No lighted candles in this crypt so children will not be able to make the rounds collecting candle drippings and forming them into great balls of wax as we used to in a traditional cemetery. In a modern crypt, one will get an attack of rhinitis from all the plastic flowers left by relatives who think these artificial flowers in perpetual bloom can make up for their negligence. I wish the crypt administrators would clear the place of plastic flowers every year before November 1 to shame relatives into sparing some time and effort to remember their dead in a proper way.
Our crypt is like a condominium with four niches per row and my father remarked recently that my mother had bought theirs long before and that she chose the lowest niche because then, we could set a bouquet of flowers on the floor by her grave. I explained later that some Chinese friends claim that it is bad feng shui to be on the lowest row and that the top niches are best. We looked up and saw many of the niches still empty but discreetly marked by the owners who we know to be still alive and kicking.
My mother’s niche is decorated with a card that her granddaughters pasted 14 years ago when she passed away. In nearby niches, we see the same complete with children’s drawings expressing how much they miss lolo or lola and hoping they would be together again—soon! Other niches have photographs of the deceased, or family pictures to keep the deceased happy. Our Thai friend left some coins on the niche together with a handmade bracelet left by yet another grandchild who retains but vague memories of her lola. I was looking at all of these reflecting on how our burial customs have changed over the last half century, with people moving from cemeteries to crypts, with people choosing to bury an urn with ashes rather than a whole corpse in a coffin. Niches in crypts being smaller than the standard ones in a cemetery or memorial park means that these are often secondary burials, the decomposed remains gathered into a smaller container and transferred from cemetery to crypt.
What were funerals like before the war? What were burials like in the Spanish period or even earlier? I know from some rather gruesome photographs known as recuerdos de patay (souvenirs of the dead) that there was a time when relatives posed around the dead before internment for a souvenir photograph, sometimes with the dead being brought out of a coffin to sit with grieving relations. We know, from archeological sites, that the dead were buried differently before and after the introduction of Christianity by the Spanish in the 16th century. Those hallowed places within a churchyard were designated as burial grounds for Christians in good standing while non-Christians, Chinese, and heretics were buried elsewhere. We know that pre-Christian burials had pabaon or grave furniture that were sent with the deceased into the afterlife. Today all the pabaon we send are the flowers and handfuls of earth thrown into the grave at the time of burial. In pre-Spanish times, the pabaon were Philippine-made earthenware and prestigious objects like glass or gold beads and Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai ceramics from the Ming period (1368-1644) or even earlier.
The All Saints and All Souls Day holidays led me to re-read Robert Fox’s preliminary report on the archeological excavations on the Zobel property in Batangas, today a high-end millionaires’ playground called Calatagan that yielded over 500 graves in the late 1950s and more even before the war. Calatagan is rooted in the verb latag indicating a place where the dead were laid flat. Near it are places called Pinagpatayan and Kalansayan whose names, referring to a massacre and skeletons, leave no room to doubt that the area was a pre-Spanish burial ground. Reading about the graves dug there, the orientation of the bones (none faced westward) and the objects speak more eloquently than the tales the dead can no longer speak of. Perhaps if we compare and contrast the way we commemorate our dead in the last five centuries, we may get closer to that elusive thing we call Filipino identity.
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