The black patch
It was my father’s first death anniversary on Monday, and someone asked if I would have a “babang-luksa,” an ending of the Filipino mourning period.
I explained that I couldn’t yet, because my mother had died three months after my father. A babang-luksa would have to be in June at the earliest, and I’ll explain that qualifier later.
This babang-luksa is marked by a meal with close relatives and friends, and an end to the use of mourning apparel, which used to be black clothing. These days though, with black having become a chic fashionable color, the color’s association with mourning has disappeared.
The original purpose of having a mourning period was to express filial piety, marked by displays of sorrow, pain and sacrifice (no haircuts, at one time!). Times change: The black apparel gave way a long time ago to a small black cloth patch, which was further reduced to a black plastic pin and, lately for many people, no patch or pin at all.
The colors are really arbitrary, assigned by culture. Many families in the Philippines, my own included, use white for funerals rather than black, white being the “correct” color for mourning in China, and also a way to deemphasize the gloom of black.
I did choose to wear, initially, a black pin, which was hard to find. I got them at the SVD (Society of Divine Word) store on E. Rodriguez Boulevard, and then discovered they were also available from a Chinese shop inside Funeraria Paz Araneta. (The owner of the shop also provides supplies for, and advice on, traditional Chinese ceremonies.)
The pin can be difficult to use for senior citizens. You need a mirror to pin them straight, and sometimes, you can prick yourself. So I ended up buying Velcro strips and cutting them up to small patches to stick on your shirt or blouse. They’re called “hook and loop adhesive strips,” and are available from stores carrying office and crafts supplies.
Why go through all this trouble?
The daily ritual of attaching the patch allows a few moments to think of the departed. The first few weeks, it was much more of mourning, but lately it’s been remembering happy times together and saying thank you to the deceased, and to life.
Anthropologists look at rituals as forms of “social signaling.” In the case of a black patch, it’s a way for people to tell others: “I lost a loved one recently.” Family friends who knew I had been caring for many years for my parents would be quick to ask who had passed away, and I would answer, “Both are gone.”
We signal, too, our need for space, for consideration. At UP, I felt, with some resentment, that after my parents died, people began to make more demands, including attending social functions. I still ask people to respect my weekends, so that I can give more time to my children who were very understanding during the difficult times their Lolo and Lola were critically ill.
It’s all a matter of respect. After a few months, I began to remove my black patch when attending festive occasions like birthdays.
Rituals help us to move toward closure, but mind you, it’s not a straight road to recovery. Just when you think it’s all right, you’ll have tough days, triggered by the most unexpected cues. Think of the black pin, cloth or Velcro as, literally, a “patch,” placed over our heart with its volatile mixture of pain and emotions.
Rituals are flexible, especially in our age of hybrid cultures. Chinese-Filipinos have to decide whether to have a Filipino babang-luksa after a year, or a Chinese “teng ha” after two years. Mourning is now much less of a public display than a private decision, so follow your feelings.
Another observance for the Chinese is no “bright”-colored clothing during the mourning period, especially red. When a cousin asked if yellow was all right, I replied that you might be wearing all black and yet go dancing in a disco right after a death, defeating the essence of mourning.
Yet, I can live with a local practice, especially in low-income communities, where people go to karaoke joints, conveniently located next to funeral parlors, singing (tearfully) their hearts out. As an anthropologist, I respect that as a form of therapy.
There’s wisdom in culture. I need to thank a family friend, Gerry Yap, for texting me, on Monday, an interesting Hokkien Chinese concept: Birthdays are “bian ki,” no need to remember, but death anniversaries are “chueh ki,” can and should be observed.
Black patches and death anniversaries are not just about grieving; after all, we grieve because we love.
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