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Gravestone text

By Juan Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:12:00 11/02/2009

Filed Under: Religion & Belief

Like many other families on All Souls? Day, the wife and I burnished the headstone on my mother?s grave. The ashes of two younger brothers rest in that same tomb.

?I am the Resurrection and the Life,? reads the text carved into their common headstone. The assertion resonates amid the row upon row of silent tombs in this airy parish columbary.

We drew up earlier what we call our ?No Erasures List.? This contains the names of departed kith and kin. They are ?lifted up? in the traditional All Souls? Day Mass, along with those submitted by other families.

We also dusted the empty niche above. Unless plans miscarry, our ashes will be interred there in due time. ?What text shall we carve into our common headstone?? we ask each other.

Is that morbid? Or simple realism? ?No traveler returns ? from this undiscovered country,? Hamlet muttered. That includes presidents, like Ferdinand Marcos, my barber Loloy, and those one encountered in half a century of journalism.

Name recall, however, dims among people that columnist William Safire joshed as the ?almost-old.? But on reflection, we realize that some reporters, who covered the Senate with me in the 1960s, are gone. So too are Manila Times publisher Chino Roces, Evening News? Jake Clave, and Newsweek?s Tarzie Vittachi. In Cebu, the names of some former colleagues are now street signs. Our now-closing journalism career began there.

?Now, we?re in the twilight of life,? I murmured to no one in particular at a Press Foundation of Asia meeting in Hong Kong.

?Don?t say that,? publisher Eugenio ?Geny? Lopez Jr. gently remonstrated. ?We?ve plenty of time.?

Before the year ended, Geny was gone.

?Death is not the extinguishing of life,? Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote. ?It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.?

The ancient Book of Macabees teaches: ?It is a good and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.? Irish immigrants brought ?All Hallow?s Eve? spooky costumes to the United States in 1848. That became ?Halloween.?

?In California, our granddaughters join trick-or-treat parties,? the wife mused. ?Here, grandchildren light candles at graves. And those will include ours, sooner rather than later.?

Celebrations differ, but the essentials remain. ?We give them back to you, O Lord, who first gave them to us,? an ancient prayer 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 farther, as one by one you gather scattered families from the strife and weariness of time to the peace of eternity.?

The liturgy for All Souls spotlights this reality. ?For unto your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away,? the priest leads in the Eucharist?s preface. The same theme resonates wherever religious or laymen pray the ?Liturgy of the Hours.?

Typhoon or no typhoon, cemeteries on All Souls? Day became two-day cities of light, with all the bustle?and even karaoke music. ?Christianity never had a significant cult around dead bodies or cemeteries,? the Oblate writer Ron Rolheiser points out. ?We respect them. But we do not mummify our dead, as ancient Egyptians did. Nor do we have special ceremonies around cemeteries. There?s a reason for that. On Easter morning, Mary of Magdala and some women brought spices to embalm the Crucified?s body. But they didn?t find him in the tomb. ?Why seek the living among the dead?? an angel asked. ?He?s not here. Go instead to Galilee and he will meet you there.?

?That instruction is still valid today: When we look to meet our loved ones who have died we will find them in ?Galilee??more so than in any cemetery. Where and what is ?Galilee???

The communion of saints is enshrined in the Creed, Father Rolheiser adds. It asserts that we?re still in a real community of life and in communication with those who have died. ?Often in a family, a friendship or community, we experience tension and hurts that (aren?t) undone. And then death brings a peace, a charity, not possible before. Why? Because death washes things clean. Luke wrote that Jesus told the good thief on the cross: ?Today you will be with me in paradise!? Those words are meant for all who die without having had time and chance to make all amends, and speak all apologies owed.

?There is still time after death, on both sides, for reconciliation and healing to happen. Because inside the communion of saints, we have privileged access to each other. And we can speak all those words that we couldn?t speak before. We can reach across death?s divide.

?It is a gift to die a happy death, reconciled in love, with no unfinished business. But, happily, there?s time still after death for those who end up dying with some bitterness, anger and wound still gnawing away.?

Pastor Lino Pantoja once observed, ?We Filipinos use the idiom itaga mo sa bato to assert our utmost confidence. Job too did that 2,500 years before Easter. ?Oh, that my words were engraved in rock forever.? They?re Job?s ?primitive theology of the Resurrection?.?

But on All Souls Day? 2009, they sound breath-takingly new: ?I know that my Redeemer lives. And in the end, He will stand forth upon the earth. And after my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.?

?There?that?s the text for our headstone,? the wife and I agree. ?Our Redeemer lives. And in our flesh, we shall see God.?

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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