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Leaving their mark

/ 12:35 AM October 30, 2015

I checked with one of my classes the other day asking what their plans were for Nov. 1. As I suspected, most of those from Metro Manila were not going to be visiting cemeteries because they anticipated traffic congestion. On the other hand, those who were from outside Metro Manila said they would have to go home, one of them saying, “You’re dead if you don’t go home. They’ll keep talking about you not caring for the family.”

Filipinos made a shift from Nov. 2, the actual Christian date to pay respects to the dead, to Nov. 1—somewhat similar to the Mexicans, who remember the dead from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, Nov. 1 being more for deceased children and Nov. 2 for adults. In the Philippines, Oct. 31 is known more as Halloween, Nov. 1 as the day for cemeteries, and Nov. 2 as a day people hope gets declared a holiday (which did not happen this year).

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The fact is that there are many more changes taking place around our commemoration of the dead in the Philippines, a function of urbanization and changing social relationships.

Chinese cemeteries

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Growing up in Manila, it was imperative we went to the Chinese cemetery to visit the dead on Nov. 1, the Filipino way, instead of the traditional Chinese Qing Ming festival. It was mainly to visit relatives on my mother’s side because my father is from Davao, but the rounds we made around this huge city of the dead, complete with street names, was also an occasion to meet almost the entire Chinese-Filipino community in Manila.

The cemetery had a bit of history as well. There were memorials to the war dead, Chinese guerrillas who had joined Filipinos fighting the Japanese. There was also a memorial for the 200-plus people killed in the Ruby Tower collapse during an earthquake in 1968. For many years, too, there would be rallies in the cemetery, organized by relatives demanding justice for the Ruby Tower victims.

The traffic was already worsening each year, but was bad only as you approached the cemetery, and we devised all kinds of strategies to get around the traffic. One was to go earlier each year until we realized it wasn’t making a difference, so we thought of visiting the cemetery a day earlier, only to realize many people had the same idea.

Over the years, Chinese-Filipino families began to bury their dead in memorial parks and, in more recent years, in churches. That move reflects another cultural change. The Chinese cemetery was first set up more than a hundred years ago, following a realization by many of the Chinese that they would never return to China. The next best option was to have a cemetery where you could be buried with other Chinese.

Now, with younger generations identifying themselves more as Chinoy, Chinese-Filipinos, the shift is toward being buried among fellow Filipinos.

In the early years after this shift began, there were initial attempts to still visit the Chinese cemetery and at least the Manila Memorial Park, where we had many relatives; but through the years, it became just too impractical. “They’ll understand,” my father would mutter, referring to the dearly departed.

My closest relatives are no longer at the Chinese cemetery, but I did bring my children there about three or four years ago because I had to prepare an educational tour module for one group doing field trips. We visited the war memorials and I was able to find the ruins of our family’s burial site. The Chinese cemetery administration apparently leaves old graves intact even after they’ve been disinterred, so as not to disturb feng shui.

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Through the years, I’ve realized that people I think of visiting in cemeteries are actually more of nonrelatives. Perhaps it speaks of expanding social networks. In the Philippine context, we ask our children to refer to the people who leave their marks in our lives as “tito” and “tita.”  Because I started my family so late in life, some of my friends are even “lolo” and “lola” to the kids.

Or “opa” and “oma,” Dutch words for grandfather and grandmother, because I have a very close Dutch friend who visits frequently. She and her husband are “auntie” and “uncle” to the kids but her parents, who have not visited the Philippines in a long time, are distantly opa and oma.

During a recent visit from my friend, I did realize something was amiss. Usually, in the evenings, my friend would Skype her mother and they would chat away. Sometimes she’d call me, “Mike, come and say hello to my mom” and I would, because we became quite close when I was living in the Netherlands. My son would pass by and call out to greet her, too. The Skype sessions could become quite lively, the living room filling up with laughter.

This last visit from my friend, the living room was eerily quiet at night because there were no more Skype sessions. Oma Antine passed away in August.

In front of my desk is a card sent out by my friend, reading in Dutch: Thanks for your lovely words, you presence, your friendship, flowers, support.

Visiting any time

We feel, much more, the absence of people who leave their marks on our lives, and that will change our cemetery visitations. I think what will happen is that we’ll begin to pay our respects to the dead at all times of the year, perhaps a birthday or an anniversary or even at a whim. One time I was caught in traffic near a church and thought, I may as well visit a Tita, a distant relative, who had passed away a month earlier and who I was suddenly missing.

Because my children are sometimes with me on these impromptu visits, and at wakes and funerals, I’m realizing they’re growing up with a healthier view of death. Despite the festive atmosphere of cemeteries on Nov. 1, there’s something almost morbid about the thick scent of candles and, in Chinese cemeteries, the incense. I also have less than pleasant memories of Chinese funerals, which were not just solemn but stern: elders would shout to the children, “Kneel, kneel!” and there was much wailing, sometimes prodded on by professional mourners (“Crying Ladies” the movie was based on this tradition).

So perhaps it’s just as well that we visit cemeteries on days other than Nov. 1, when there is much more peace and quiet, allowing us to reflect on the dignity of death and about life’s happier times, filled with friendships and love.

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TAGS: All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, remembering the dead
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