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Cemeteries

/ 10:39 PM October 31, 2013

For the longest time, I thought that word was spelled “cementeries,” as in the Spanish-Filipino term “sementeryo,” and I thought the word was related to, well, cement, not just because of the tombs but also because of the huge city of the dead that was the Chinese Cemetery (there, that’s the correct spelling) in Manila.

Every All Saints Day was a major expedition, with people calling one another to figure out what the best route to the cemetery might be. Once at the cemetery gates we would get very tense, wondering if we could even find our way to our family plot. The Chinese Cemetery was a maze, the landmarks being other people’s graves, especially the mausoleums of the very rich that stood out like mansions, with distinctive architectural features.

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We’d finally find our way to our family plot where our kin on the maternal side are buried. (Family members on my father’s side are buried in Davao.) There’s “Kongkong” (grandfather), wedged between two of his wives. I intentionally used “wedged” because the two wives, to put in mildly, didn’t like each other and were always nagging Kongkong for taking so many wives, which was the Chinese tradition then. The living were more civil, especially the children, who couldn’t have cared less which “Ama” (grandmother) we came from. Our clan was marked by intercultural marriages and we spoke more in English and Tagalog (tinged with Ilokano and Ilonggo accents) than in Chinese. (Thinking about it now, I think we used Chinese only when we offered incense to our grandparents, limited to calling out Kongkong and Ama.)

Every now and then, the elders would herd the children to go and visit other graves. We’d go back into the maze, sometimes losing our way and asking around for directions, again by naming someone’s mausoleum. There would be other interruptions, like younger children wanting ice cream or cotton candy or a soft drink. (No bottled water at that time.)

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Ruby Tower

Every year, too, we’d find a protest rally of relatives of the victims of the Ruby Tower tragedy in Chinatown during the earthquake of 1968. More than 200 people were killed when the 5-story building collapsed. The protesters blamed the disaster on the building contractors, and called for compensation.

An obligatory stop each year was the grave of a granduncle and grandaunt who had raised my father. The other visits reflected an expanded network, not necessarily of relatives.  In effect, All Saints Day was as much about the living as of the dead, a day when we could conveniently meet up with the most important relatives, friends and business associates, all in one day and with a certain priority of order.

Cemeteries reflect living cultures. Chinese cemeteries came about because of ethnic and racial segregation. Mind you, the segregation was forced in some sense because the Spaniards wouldn’t allow non-Catholics (the Chinese, as well as excommunicated Filipinos, including some of our national heroes) to be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

For the Chinese, a separate cemetery also reflected a last attempt at preserving Chinese tradition. Many of the Chinese in the Philippines had hopes of returning to China in their old age to die and be buried there, but the Chinese cemeteries (found not just in Manila but in other major urban areas in the Philippines) reflected a growing acceptance that the Philippines was now their home, in life and in death.

While the architecture in the Chinese Cemetery left you with no doubts about who was buried there, the atmosphere during All Saints Day was more “Filipino,” similar to all the other cemeteries in fanfare and festivities. While there is another day for the dead among the Chinese, the Qingming, most local Chinese follow the Filipino practice of visiting cemeteries on All Saints Day. (The more “correct” Christian observance is to remember the dead on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, but Filipinos mutated the practice and use Nov. 1 instead.)

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In so many words then, maybe “sementeryo” and “cementeries” were appropriate terms for these cities that come alive on the day of the dead.

Changing times

Times change, and so do cemeteries. Starting around the 1980s, there was an exodus away from these huge cemeteries to more sedate memorial parks, or maybe I should take back the term “sedate” because on All Saints Day, the parks would still be noisy and crowded, complete with frayed nerves and even road rage.

This would be followed by still another exodus.  After the Catholic Church allowed cremations, we began to see columbaria—places where cremated remains are interred—in churches as well as in memorial parks.  In a way it was a return to Spanish colonial practice, where churches had their own quiet and simple cemeteries or underground crypts (mainly for the richest families in town).

Many local Chinese families have transferred the remains of relatives out of the Chinese cemeteries and into memorial parks and columbaria. The Chinese Cemetery in Manila is quieter now, even on All Saints Day, and may soon become mainly a tourist destination because the opulent mausoleums are still there, as well as several memorial sites for local Chinese who died fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.

If the cemeteries were cities of the dead, the columbaria are postmortem condominiums.  Visits are short now, consisting of a few minutes of silence and prayer at a niche, then moving on to another niche, which may be a few meters away. Then, home.

In the years ahead, the All Saints Day crowds in Metro Manila will be reduced because people are using so many different cemeteries, memorial parks and church columbaria, making it more difficult to look up relatives and family friends.

But in smaller cities and rural areas, the cemeteries will continue to be important because everyone knows everyone else, and there will only be two cemeteries—one municipal and the other the Catholic Church’s. But watch out for changes in these frontier areas. GMA 7 had a newscast featuring a cemetery in Kalinga where the tombs are built in all shapes, including airplanes and ships.

We will see a privatization of our remembrances of the dead. More Filipinos, including myself, visit graves on the deceased’s birthday, or death anniversary. One time I even found myself just wanting to drop by to “see” an aunt who had passed away recently, even if it wasn’t a special day.  The church where she was buried was on the way anyway to the University of the Philippines, so I took a small detour.

The atmosphere in these columbaria comes closer to the original meaning of the word “cemetery,” which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, goes back to the Greek “koimeterion,” a sleeping place. The same term was used to refer to a dormitory. I like that original meaning of a cemetery as a place where our loved ones sleep, and rest.

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TAGS: “Kongkong”, all saints day, all souls day, Chinatown, Chinese cemetery, Roman Catholic church, Ruby Tower
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