The dead live
Through culture, that is. All cultures have all kinds of beliefs and practices concerning the dead, reflecting the emotions around death, dying and, yes, the dead.
The fear of death, so powerful that great thinkers from the Roman philosopher Lucretius to the genius Albert Einstein, among others, led to the rise of beliefs in gods and religions, the idea of an afterlife giving some comfort.
And yet when we consider the many death rituals, we’ll find that there’s more than just comfort involved, or even a reassurance of another life ahead. We literally “play” with the dead to serve many social needs.
Anthropologists propose that death rituals are meant to ensure that the dead are “dispatched” to the next world. The rituals spare no effort to send off the dead, even assuring them that all is well among the living and that they, the dead, should move on—thus our fear of the undead, the living (and walking) dead.
Cultures have collective angst over the possibility that some souls are unwilling to leave—for example, those that died young, those that died from violence, and those that died without being reunited with the living (as in victims of disasters and air and sea accidents).
The theme of restless souls needing justice was particularly strong this year in the Philippines, with several events organized by religious and human rights groups and involving relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) speaking out.
There are religious elements, certainly, in the calls to pray for the victims’ souls, but there is the political as well, building public awareness that has grown in the last few months. For the relatives and friends, these commemorations do offer some comfort; the storytelling becomes therapeutic to some extent, although I sense there’s often much more despair and hopelessness about justice ever coming through.
Perhaps because there have been so many violent deaths—even before the current war on drugs—we’ve developed all kinds of coping practices. At the wakes for EJK victims in many parts of the Philippines, relatives place chicks on the glass tops of coffins. The chicks’ chirping is supposed to function as pangkonsyensya—pricking the killers’ conscience.
Pangkonsyensiya is the attributed function as well to black candles sold in front of Quiapo Church. (There are also candles in other colors—for example, peach for studies popular among those about to take the board or licensing exams), or blue for peace of mind. These conscience candles come in the regular elongated shape or in a human shape and are hollow so you can insert the name, even the photograph, of the person whose conscience needs pricking. They come as well in two versions: whole or half body, depending on how much you want to torment the feckless one who abandoned you in business, or in love.
Yes, pangkonsyensiya is a euphemism for kulam, witchcraft, which no one wants to admit performing but sometimes, in private and in confidence, people will allow their anguish to spill over into vengeful anger, as they talk of how the EJKs will someday bring misery and painful death to the killers… and their bosses. Kulam is unsaid, but floats around especially during wakes, in the night.
Sometimes, too, karma is invoked: Justice will come on its own, people try to assure the bereaved, and I think that these days there is a greater fear of karma than of kulam. Journalist-friends tell me about cops privately admitting fear that all these killings will get back to them, at them.
There is another side to the cultures of death. Christianity borrowed older pagan practices to produce a three-day Allhallowtide, “hallow” a cognate of “hollow” or sacred, of the saints. Oct. 31 was called All Hallow’s Evening, the eve of All Saints (All Hallows Day), which was apparently important in the past, so much so that Martin Luther intentionally chose Oct. 31 to publicize his protest against the Catholic Church, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. Luther railed against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences, which were supposed to be redeemable for reducing the stay in purgatory of the souls of the departed.
Halloween today has become totally secular, and commercial, and many Christians, Protestants in particular, refuse to let their children celebrate it, seeing it as almost diabolical.
For Allhallowtide, there’s Nov. 1, to commemorate all saints, named and unnamed. Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, originally intended for the dead, more of relatives and friends.
The Catholic Church has tried, in vain, to get Filipinos to remember their dearly departed on Nov. 2, but Nov. 1 is too entrenched as the “Araw ng Patay,” the Day of the Dead, so that even the government declares Nov. 1 a holiday but not Nov. 2.
It seems that Spanish missionaries noted how strong ancestor veneration (some will say ancestor worship) was in their colonies in Latin America and the Philippines. Rather than suppress these practices, they allowed a “Dia de los Muertos” and our “Araw ng Patay,” in which people could practice a mix of Christian and pagan traditions.
In the latest online issue of the Jesuit magazine America, Mexican-American writer Gina Franco has this description of ofrendas (offerings) on altars used for the Day of the Dead: “Heavy-laden with ofrendas of bread and fruit and Coca-Cola, flowers and candles and photographs, saints and crucifixes and sugar skulls, the altar almost collapses into itself for pure extravagances of color and scent.”
The extravagance, Franco suggests, lures the dead back, even brings them back to life through the skeletons that, although made of flour, can be made to dance. Rather than fearing them, the dead are invited to return, even to dance and to join the revelry.
The Day of the Dead is therefore a family reunion, and celebrate we do in our cemeteries, to such an excess that alcoholic drinks are now prohibited because of the many problems brought about by the living dead—oops, the living drunks.
Paradoxically, our cemeteries are so full of life, places where people can literally laugh and play. As family reunions go, cemeteries are venues for gossip, about what the dead did, and about the living, too, all the way to particular grave sites that are neglected.
I wonder what will happen as more families opt for columbaria, or places for the ashes of the cremated. There’s little space for social exchange, almost as if the venue is meant only for grieving, which does not fit our “Araw ng Patay.” We wish the dead can rest in peace, thus the term namayapa, but if they could indeed return and speak, the Filipino dearly departed just might protest the peace and serenity, hoping for a day at least in the year when they can catch up with the joys of the living. We pray for a happy death, so should we be surprised if we find ourselves in the company of the happy dead?
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