Why not head for the beaches?
Tomorrow the Christian world celebrates All Saints Day. As far back as I can remember, on such days it was a family tradition to make an annual trek to the cemetery to visit our beloved departed. In many provinces of the country, the visit to the cemetery is actually on the following day, Nov. 2, which is designated by the Church as All Souls Day. This tradition of visiting the dead dates back to the Spanish colonial period and is part of our Hispanic legacy.
But why do many of us make such a visit on All Saints Day, which is the day before the actual feast for the souls? Visperas is a Spanish word that means the evening before the day in question or the last evening before a festival. In the old days, celebrations began a day early, so people began the commemoration of All Souls Day a day ahead (known as All Saints Day). Through the years, different parts of the country have come up with variations of the festival.
The original idea behind All Souls Day was for us, the living, to remember and pray for the souls of our departed, who may be in a half-way house called purgatory—a way station between heaven and hell. Obviously if a person went straight to heaven, there was no need to pray for him and if he went to hell, no amount of prayer could save him, or so our religious mentors stressed. Since we could never be sure whether a soul had joined the angels and saints, or was already burning in the flames of hell, or was being held in purgatory, it was best to go out and pray for them on this particular occasion.
Today, what is it like to visit the cemeteries in Metro Manila on All Saints Day? First of all, there are monumental traffic jams on roads leading to the cemeteries; and as you get closer, all movements slow down to a snail’s pace.
If you are an early bird, parking may not be too much of a problem, but after a while, you would be lucky if you get to park within a kilometer of the gravesite being visited. At times, parking disputes could end up in violent confrontation resulting in serious injury, if not death.
The atmosphere in the cemetery is more like a marketplace, with hawkers moving around and people either eating, sleeping, playing cards or mahjong, or gossiping with friends and relatives. The visit turns out to be more like an outing, with the last person on our minds being the one that we came to see and remember in the first place.
Our population is bursting at the seams; so is the number of our dead. The transportation system, in terms of both vehicles and highways, is overburdened and matters can only worsen as time goes by. With no significant improvement in the traffic situation in Metro Manila, it would be sheer lunacy for all of us to head for the cemeteries tomorrow in observance of All Saints Day.
There is a need to change or discard some of our traditions and customs that chain us to the past. A few years ago, I advocated that we save this particular trip for another day, a day that means something special for the family of the departed. It could be a birth or death anniversary, or perhaps a wedding date, a day of particular importance. Most likely there will be very few people in the cemetery, and you can honor the dead in an atmosphere of quiet dignity and attention.
There are some traditions worth keeping; there are others that should be altered because of developments in our society that make their continued practice impractical. Since the Church was very much involved in the establishment of this particular tradition, perhaps it can take the lead in initiating change as it has done in the past when modification was necessary.
For many years, the practice of cremation was prohibited by the Church and, in fact, was considered a mortal sin. This position has since been set aside, and the Church now allows cremation mainly because of the growing scarcity of land for burial purposes. Recently, however, the Church has disallowed the scattering of the ashes back to nature or the keeping of the ashes in urns at home. It has also opposed the macabre practice of feeding the cremains (cremated remains) to favorite household pets.
In the past, Church rituals were conducted in Latin. Now, English or Filipino is being used in the interest of more significant participation by the laity. For a long period of time, the sacred host could only be handled by priests. Today, laymen assist the priests in the distribution of Holy Communion. Also, the Church has drastically reduced the number of days of obligation to only three: New Year’s Day, Christmas, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. These days, instead of having only Sunday Masses, we have the option of attending anticipated services on a Saturday.
Perhaps it is time for a bit more flexibility in the observance of practices connected with All Saints Day. Surely we would not be dishonoring the memory of our dead by deciding that instead of visiting them on All Saints Day, we set aside another day of the year for this purpose. Any meaningful change is oftentimes fraught with controversy and usually necessitates a period of difficult adjustment. It is never too late to initiate reforms, particularly if it benefits the community.
Remembering our dead is a celebration of life; a life of joy and laughter, a life well-spent with loved ones. It does not have to be spent on a long hot road to a place that resembles some crowded bus terminal full of strangers.
So think about it. Why not head for the beach or some spa or resort and enjoy a well-deserved long weekend?
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