Friday, October 24, 2008

De profundis

I'm going to the cemetery tomorrow.

Think of it as a pre-All Souls' Day vigil. Here in the Philippines October and November are always very mystical months; there is a great deal of mystery and wonder that envelops them. Locally, November 1 and 2 are known as the 'undas', so-called, because of the waves upon waves of people visiting the dead on these two days. But no ordinary visits, these-- from Mexico, something of the Dia de Los Muertos seems to have been imported to our country. Thus undas in Manila means spending all day-- sometimes up to midnight-- in the cemeteries. There is always drinking, eating, merry-making, gambling (if you're lucky), and an occasional impromptu family reunion, happening right beside your loved ones' tombs.

The cemetery where my grandfather is buried is middle class, more or less. But you will still see people playing music and talking rather loudly, as it has always been. The older ones say, the dead need company; if we do not keep vigil with them for the day, it will come back to haunt us. Thus, prayers are recited-- novenas, rosaries, chaplets, the occasional song, litanies, and supplications. One always has to be wary, though, since many take it upon themselves to dress up as priests, and collect those delicious stole fees for their own benefit.

I am sure it will be an interesting trip. We will be going with some Protestant relatives, and some hardcore, mantilla-wearing, rosary-praying, knee-walking, statue-kissing Catholics. One time a Protestant aunt, observing a Catholic grand aunt lighting a candle for the deceased, took me aside and told me: 'I don't mean to be rude, but lighting a candle won't do anything for your lolo, since he is either in heaven or hell, and nothing will change that.' I replied: 'But the lighting of the candle is not a salvific act, it's merely for remembrance.' She replied to me: 'That's what you think. Our elders always told us that candles have other properties.'

It was then that I realized that I knew nothing at all about these traditions. I kept quiet, mumbling to myself in the head. Then another Protestant relative stepped forward, "Talked" to my grandfather for a bit, and then started to pray an Our Father, a Haily Mary (!!!), and a Glory Be. It is amazing how the cult of the saints, the rhythm of countless rosaries, the urge to visit and converse with the dead, can be so firmly rooted in the human soul, that even a self-confessed Born-Again Evangelical Protestant, would find herself muttering these forgotten, ancient, 'pagan' incantations. De profundis, indeed.

The days are running faster, it is growing darker earlier, and already the air seems to smell of lagrimas (a local flower associated with funerals) and candle wax. Tomorrow I will see all of these things-- if not all, then some. And I will become that naive, little boy I once was, and I will sleep in the bosom of these strange and forgotten rituals. I hope I don't see a ghost.


Rita said...

Gosh, I think you are so lucky!

One of the problems of being a daughter of immigrants is that there are no family graves in this country. Besides, my blood relatives aren't Catholic, they're not even pagans, at least pagans have rituals...the dead mean so little to the living in my clan. I have to draw up my own remembrance and celebrate it alone.

Andrew said...

A ghost?
Heaven forfend.

I'll be going off to the cemetery this Sunday to visit my grandfather as well.

Do they still pour food in the graves in the Philippines? What about Santo Muerte? Is that Mexican tradition alive there as well?

Archistrategos said...


I've never actually seen that being done, but I think an aunt of mine was buried with a good measure of food and some coins. The Santa Muerte is not known in these parts :)


I totally agree. The grave next to my grandfather's is overgrown with weeds and the lettering has been so obscured that one could not even make out the name of the deceased anymore. It was a profoundly sad sight to behold.