Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Funeral Customs

Whenever someone dies, I always make an interesting discovery. Most of these revolve around various practices and curiosities I often see being done when a loved one dies. These range from such customs as putting an extra chair for the deceased on the dining table, the belief that the deceased's body can and must never be left alone in the funeral parlor, the telling of riddles, or bugtongs as we call them in Filipino, the severing of the clasped rosary, the ninth, thirtieth, and fortieth day commemorations. To be honest, I never quite understood the rationale and piety behind them, but I will try to list as many as I can in this post.

The first custom is holding a banquet in honor of the deceased. Now food is very central to Filipino culture, but during funerals, when there are hundreds of guests to feed (a local belief is that the average person will know 250 people in his lifetime, hence many wealthy families often prepare for this amount), banquets often turn into truly sumptuous events. A place of honor is reserved for the deceased; the chair is left unoccupied, and often has the best servings of food. This could probably be an influence of the Chinese, who often buried food, clothing, and other paraphernalia with their dead.

Another belief holds that the deceased must never, ever, be left alone in the funeral parlor. Local piety holds that the soul of the deceased will get angry if he is not prayed for, and would often haunt its negligent relatives. That is why many Filipinos often 'camp' in the funeral parlor; they sleep, eat, and sometimes even bathe in them (in the bathrooms, of course!) until the day of burial comes. Corollary to this is the belief that someone must stay awake and keep vigil with the deceased for the whole night. To accomplish this, the old-timers would often tell 'bugtongs'. A bugtong is a sentence or question with a hidden meaning, which often functions as a riddle. Here's an example of a bugtong:

Buto't balat

Loosely translated into English, it is:
Skin and bones

The answer is, of course, a kite. A bugtong often "fetishizes" mundane things and customs (kaugalian).As far as I know, this practice has been around since Pre-Hispanic times; it survived the Spanish colonization and was given a Christianized facade.

Another interesting funeral custom is the severing of the clasped rosary. Among Filipinos, it is a norm to place a rosary in the deceased's hands as a sign of piety. However, before the body is ultimately buried underground, a relative or loved one of the deceased, usually a female, severs the rosary; it is left in the clasped hands of the deceased, however. This is because they believe that, since the rosary essentially follows a circle, it thus goes round and round, i.e., forever. Thus, it could be seen as a sign that the deceased would have to spend time in purgatory forever (if he is bound for eternal glory, anyway). With the cutting of the rosary, the deceased's loved ones are symbolically freeing him from the fires of purgatory.

I've also seen, in old photographs, how the old-timers used to tie a band of narrow cloth around the deceased person's jaw, thus keeping it tightly shut. I don't have an explanation for this, but I've heard that it keeps the body from being possessed by demons (that is, they prevent them from entering the dead person's mouth). I've not yet heard a good or convincing explanation for this yet, though.

Finally there is the custom of commemorating the ninth, thirtieth, and fortieth days since the death of the loved one. The ninth day, of course, is the culmination of the novena masses for the repose of the soul; it is called the pasiyam, literally 'the ninth'. The thirtieth day commemoration is probably more of a Tagalog practice (I am not really sure), and is mostly held for women. Forty, of course, is a very loaded number in Scripture; there were forty days and nights of rain that flooded the earth, forty days and nights spent fasting in the desert; it is most probable that the fortieth day commemoration is symbolic of the soul's 'calvary' and is perhaps a celebration or reminder that, often life comes through death. It is, above all, a ritual of hope.

It is worth mentioning, too, that women often lead in the prayers; usually, the matriarch of the clan is the prayer leader, if there be no priest present. As is customary, all of these commemorations end in a feast.

1 comment:

Omri said...

What is the meaning and orgin of raising the coffin for the relatives to pass under?