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Why not red at a wake?

Some people think me heartless because I did not cry or do the required hysterics when my father passed away quietly at Makati Medical Center last Sunday at 9:55 p.m. My sisters were shocked that I was more concerned about his dentures than anything else before I arrived. I explained that my father’s dentures had to be installed before rigor mortis set in, because he would look so bad and wasted that even his grandchildren would not recognize him without them. When this was done, the next problem was keeping his mouth shut; first we used a pillow, then a towel, until we settled on the wide rubber band they use for a tourniquet.

Waiting for the bills and the death certificate distracted us from our loss, and it helped that he had passed away in the empty Kidney Unit (KU) rather than the Intensive Care Unit, where he would have been just another piece of meat. Having been a regular at the KU for the past three years made all the difference; the staff knew him and took extra care of him in life and even in death. When a nurse came to remove the IV drip and other things attached to his lifeless body, she asked tenderly, “Daddy, alisin ko ito, ha?” We all looked at her and said, “Why ask? He’s dead.” She replied that it was the proper thing to do. They treated him in death as a person rather than as a cadaver, and small gestures like these meant a lot at that most difficult time.

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His remains were collected from the hospital morgue at 2 a.m., we had a Mass at 8 and cremation followed at 9 a.m. Two hours later, his ashes were given to us in a marble urn. If I had my way, the ashes would have been placed in the crypt with my mother, straight from the crematorium. But tradition dictated that we go through a wake and funeral. In retrospect, I realize that a wake is not for the dead but for the living, who must come to terms with their loss by getting together to reminisce and share stories of how the deceased had been part of their lives.

There were so many traditions and superstitions new and old that came up during the wake: Well-wishers should not be ushered out; well-wishers are to be fed, and this being a Kapampangan wake, there were three full meals served and lots of food and drink in-between; well-wishers are not allowed to take home any food or flowers, but we ignored all this on the last day; well-wishers are advised not to use the toilets, because that was leaving something of yourself behind; well-wishers were advised not to sign the guest book, because after the funeral God would place all the names in a tambiolo and pick out lucky winners who would die next. Then there is pagpag, stopping by and leaving death at a convenience store before returning home. There is enough material here for a doctoral dissertation.

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Black is the color of choice at funerals because it is elegant, and makes one look slim. Black, however, attracts heat and is not suitable for long services at outdoor burials. White is the default Chinese mourning color; it is more cheerful than black and more comfortable in cotton or linen. Foreigners in Japan often make a thoughtful gesture by giving white chrysanthemums to friends and acquaintances, not knowing that these beautiful flowers are only presented to the dead at funerals.

My sisters decided on white for my father’s funeral Mass, the same color as the flowers and wreaths sent by relatives, friends and friends of friends, but when I arrived in the church everyone had given in to vanity and came attired in traditional black. If I had my way, I would have come in flaming red, as one does to a Chinese birthday party, since a funeral marks the passage from one life to the next.

I was firmly told not to wear red at the risk of offending my father’s sister, the only one left standing in a brood of 10. A Chinese friend agreed with my choice of red, because some Chinese do so if the deceased had lived to a ripe old age. Since my father died at 94, his life was better celebrated than mourned.

The question of color often came up when visitors apologized for being attired in bright hues or lively prints, because they had come to the wake from a party or work. Of course, the fact that they came to express their condolences in person was appreciated more than the color of their clothes.

Filipino folk beliefs and customs at wakes and funerals may not make sense to us, but they do make the reality of death and the afterlife easier to bear.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, black, Looking Back, Red, wake
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