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Living dead

/ 01:12 AM October 28, 2016

I’ve been asking people if they will be going to the cemeteries on Nov. 1, and their replies confirm my suspicion that for many Filipinos, this will be one long holiday weekend, emphasis on “holiday.”

“Malayo eh” is the reply I get most often from those who are from outside Metro Manila, meaning their hometowns are too far for them to visit. Some smile and say they wish Nov. 2 were a holiday as well, so they could make the return trip to Manila.

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But even people from Metro Manila say they won’t be going to the cemeteries, and their excuse is that they don’t want to fight the traffic. Some even recall the road rage incident a few years back at the Loyola Memorial Park that resulted in a pregnant woman being shot. (I looked up the incident on the internet and was surprised to see that it happened way back in 1998, almost 20 years ago. The woman was a passenger in a vehicle, and her baby was delivered by caesarean section before she died.)

Disruption

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Death disrupts life, especially when it’s sudden, and unexpected, as with an adolescent, or a young adult. Note that when an infant is involved, there tends to be less grief, since the bonds have not been built—although again, my women friends who have had miscarriages and stillborns say that the loss can be profound and painful, too.

When I was working in rural areas and doing community surveys, whenever I’d ask mothers how many children they had, they would give the number of children who died along with the living.

With life expectancies much longer now, we find ourselves caring in the long term for the elderly who are afflicted with chronic diseases, and so when they leave us, we’re usually somewhat ready. Of course, no one will ever be totally prepared. I’ve seen people caring for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease for as long as 10 years and knowing death is inevitable; yet when it does happen, the grief is intense.

The point is that when death occurs, our lives and our social network are ripped apart. Culture is there to help us through that rupture, but there are vast cultural differences in the way we respond to a death. Modern societies fear death (and aging) much more. Just google and you’ll find thousands of articles on the American fear of death. Grieving is considered a very private affair, with short wakes and a simple funeral.

In the Philippines, we try to minimize the pain of the separation by making the dead live a bit longer. Our wakes are long, especially in this age of the Filipino diaspora where we have to wait for relatives flying in from all over the world. But waiting for Kuya becomes an excuse for a days-long party and a reunion of sorts, with some semblance of solemnity.

Some. There’s karaoke and mahjong and novenas and Masses and feasting and warning, tongue in cheek, to be careful with the food lest high cholesterol dispatch someone to quickly follow the dearly departed.

Memento mori’

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One thing I’ve noticed is that we do cut down on one activity connected with the living: photographs, which is surprising because people used to take a lot of photos in funeral parlors and cemeteries.

I have family photographs where the entire clan poses with the coffin bearing the deceased, usually on the last day of the wake, with everyone looking very sad. In one of my graduate classes last year, I had a student who remembered how the deceased was even “resurrected” from the coffin, made to sit up, to pose with the family.

If that sounds macabre, look up an article on the BBC site on “memento mori,” death photographs, which were very popular in Victorian England. Cameras had just been invented then and the craze for having photographs taken was extended to include the dead. The BBC article has all these photographs of young and old dead people being made to pose with the living.

Memento mori actually means a remembrance of death, a way of telling people: Remember, we must all die.

I’m trying to process the decline of the use of photographs with the dead. I would think it’s awkward trying to do a selfie by the coffin. Can you imagine telling Lolo, lying there in peace, that you want a selfie with him? Or inviting other relatives to come together for the selfie?

Funerals do get photographed, but more like in the style of a photojournalist covering an event. You don’t have people posing, or being made to pose, and no calls for wacky or jump shots.

We do grieve, excessively and hysterically by many cultures’ standards. And we send off the dead in huge numbers, just like we do at airports, without wishes of bon voyage.

We come together on the 9th day and the 40th day, on the first anniversary and the second… Then we limit ourselves to Nov. 1 visits.

I like the Muslims’ attitude to death, with the deceased buried preferably before sunset on the day of passing. No wakes. And burials are simple and solemn, the emphasis being on commemorating the dead through memories of the times when they were alive.

We could adopt that attitude. Photographs of the dead at home, maybe even in the wallet. And visits to the dead need not be on Nov. 1 alone.  The growing popularity of cremations has led many churches to put up columbaria or niches where the ashes can be interred. I like the columbaria because they’re often in a parish church, and you can drop by any time, which is what I do for particularly beloved aunts and grandaunts. (I have a gender bias, the women tending to be kinder and more loving.)

I’ve been thinking about friends who have passed away and find that I miss the younger ones more, often because they were the ones I had such high hopes for as future leaders in their professions, and in the university.

I never delete the numbers of deceased relatives and friends from my cell phone, and sometimes, doing a search for a message, I’ll stumble on a text they had sent. I smile and wonder what would happen if I did text them. I don’t, of course, but I end up doing, not a missed call, but a “miss you” thought.

Then I move on with life, as I think they would want me to.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: all saints day, death, Holiday, long weekend, memento mori, remembrance
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