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Etching gravestones

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“Will there be a next time?” Roberto asked as we pulled up  before the Rome hostel. We had returned from Tuscany.  In Poggio village, we lit  candles at the grave of Peter, a fellow UN officer, killed in an autobahn accident. The next day, we’d fly back to our Bangkok station. “Let me give you an abrazo,” Roberto  said. “Just in case.”

All Souls’ Day is marked Friday. We’ve added Roberto’s name to the list of departed kin and friends for the Requiem Mass. He just died from pancreatic cancer. “Life is changed not taken away,” the Mass preface will say.

“Death is not the extinguishing of life,” 1913 Nobel laureate  Rabindranath Tagore wrote. “It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

Araw ng mga Patay (Day of the Departed) is celebrated  Nov. 2. The day before is what our grandparents called “Todos los Santos.”  All Saints’ Day is when people flood into cemeteries  for rites of remembrance.

Like the year before, “de cajon” reports swirl about  traffic snarls, pickpockets, karaoke blasting in overcrowded cemeteries, vacated temporarily by squatters.  Don’t put up posters depicting your faces, the Church warned 2013 candidates.

We’ve  brushed up the family niches. One holds the ashes of our mother and two younger brothers. A line from John (11:25) is carved in the headstone: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  The wife and I reserved the next niche for ourselves “when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers.” We’ve  still to decide what to etch into our headstone.

“Death plucks my ears and says: Live—I am coming,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on his 90th birthday.  All Souls’ Day confronts with the sheer messiness and pain of human existence. Who hasn’t cried at funerals of kith or kin?  Before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept.”

“We’re in the twilight of life,” we recall telling Press Foundation of Asia officers. “Don’t say that,” publisher Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr. gently remonstrated. “We  still have plenty of time.” Before the year ended, Geny was gone.

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” Thomas a’ Kempis counseled. “In the morning, consider that you may not live till nightfall…. Many die when they least think of it…. A man is here today. And tomorrow, he is gone. And when he is taken out of sight, he is also quickly out of mind.”

It is a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, says the Book of Macabees (100 B.C.).  Some 2,500 years before Easter’s empty tomb, Job exulted. “My Redeemer lives… and will stand forth upon the earth. After my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

Catacombs in Rome show Christians, hiding from persecution,  praying for the departed. In 998 A.D., Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny picked Nov. 2 for this remembrance. This practice spread to other countries, including the Philippines.

At Myther’s watering hole for journalists, Manila  Bulletin editor in chief Crispulo Icban and I once scribbled, on a scratch pad, names of colleagues who had passed on. They included Joaquin “Chino” Roces and Chronicle’s Primitivo Mijares who was salvaged  for his book on the Marcos “Conjugal  Dictatorship,” and the copyboy in the newsroom. How did half a century of journalism pile up so many names?

“We give them back to you, O Lord, who first gave them to us,” an ancient prayer for All Souls’ Day says. “Yet, as you do not lose in giving, so we have not lost them by their return….” Death is only a horizon. And a horizon is the limit of our sight.

“We thank you for the deep sense of mystery that lies beyond our mortal dust…. Lift us up, that we may see further, as one by one, you gather scattered families, from the distraction,  strife and weariness of time to the peace of eternity.”

The catechism teaches: A community of believers can reach across the divide of death and shares the grace that surges into eternal life. We belong to a communion of saints: a family of the living and the dead, bound together by sacrament, prayer and praise. (Many) will grow in his love, until they see God as He  is.

“We can talk with those called before us,” Oblate professor Ron Rolheiser says. Reconciliation that wasn’t possible before their deaths can now occur. “Inside the communion of saints, we have privileged access to each other. We can finally speak those words that we couldn’t speak before, make the amends and speak the apologies we owe.” We can reach across death’s divide.”

There are capital “S” saints. Their names ring out when the Litany of Saints is chanted: Mary, mother of Christ, with Joseph; Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, Therese of Lisieux;  Lorenzo Ruiz of Binondo and after last Oct. 23’s canonization rites, Pedro Calungsod of the Visayas.

There are also small letter “saints”: from maids, teachers, barbers to nuns and market vendors. Despite their flaws, these obscure men and women serve God in neighbors. “Here comes  everybody’s feast,” author James Joyce wrote of All Souls’ Day.

“We commended the dead into the hands of God when they were laid in the grave,” says the nuanced agreed statement from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  “And on this day we are united before God in our remembrance of them.”

All reecho the 8th-century-B.C. vision of Isaiah: “He will destroy death for ever…. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face.”

(email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )


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Tags: all saints day , all souls day , column , Juan L. Mercado



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