Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Cemetery Visit, Part I

It has been a long time since I last explored the Manila Memorial Park on foot. So when we visited my maternal grandfather, I was giddy with excitement. For me, cemetery visits occasioned not just opportunities to pray for the dead, but to go 'sightseeing' as well. As this cemetery is relatively new compared to others in Manila, and not to mention that it has a significantly middle class 'population', certain sections of the park were reserved for families who had the clout to build mausoleums for their beloved dead.

Entering the Park, one is immediately greeted by the sight of a large, Greco-Roman style mausoleum-- so large that it had its own driveway, and had pine trees surrounding it. A gorgeous tympanum of the Resurrection, done in the Renaissance style, lent a feeling of awe and wonder to the otherwise drab, gray structure. As a child I was incredibly fascinated by this building; I had always wanted to visit it, but never had the courage nor the time to do so. I imagined that, whoever owned the mausoleum, they were probably old-money types who shunned attention from the world. In any case, it was a very beautiful, very solemn structure. I would love to visit it some other time.

Anyway, my grandfather's plot was still a good distance away. To get there you crossed a bridge of sorts, where a man-made lagoon brooded silently. There was a white monument, like a gigantic spade of sorts, that thrust its way up so that whoever crossed the bridge would see it. I thought it was an ugly, brutal thing. Surprisingly, there were already a lot of people in the cemetery, for October. Usually the arrivals peak on October 31st and November 1st; I saw a lot of cars, even a classic Ferrari, gleaming immaculate and red as blood to one corner.

Eventually we arrived at my grandfather's plot. We got there just in time as the cemetery workers (who literally lived 'behind the wall'-- but more on that later) finished laying Lolo's new lapida (gravestone). The old one had long been decrepit, and the brass lettering stolen, so that we only read a ridiculous caricature of his name on our last visits. As for the workers-- Lolo was buried in a far-off, secluded area of the cemetery, which was already close to its boundaries. Behind the cemetery wall, however, was a small squatter 'colony'. It's quite creepy when you think about it, but in this corner of the world, survival is of greater importance than living one's life.

When we got there, the other side of my family was already there (the Protties). They brought a banig with them (i.e., a handwoven mat made for sleeping or outdoor eating), some short stools, paper plates, Doritos, pails of water (for cleaning the tomb), and what have you. My grandmother then surprised me by pulling out some siomai (dumplings) from her bag (!!!). They even came with some soy sauce. Oh, it was a wonderful picnic; the dumplings were simply scrumptious! My cousin then pulls out a deck of Magic cards and begins to duel with my brother; it was then that I decided to do a walking tour of the cemetery.

My aunt and my other cousin decided to tag along with me, and in no time, we were following the winding roads of the cemetery. Our first stop was not a mausoleum, but a 'condominium', which basically means a high wall where niches were arranged, side by side, for the beloved dead. We saw a lot of Basque names in that condominium; there was a Zabaljauregui, a Barranechea, and a Zaldarriaga next to a Fong. Surprisingly, I saw no messages in Euskerra, only in Castellano. Finishing that, we crossed over to a wooded path (see image above). But before that, we passed another condominium marked 'The Sanctuary of Peace'.

The following is going to be embarrassing, but it is true. When I first saw the SoP in 2001/2002, I thought it was where the bathrooms were. I remember yelling loudly for my brother, telling him I found the bathrooms. I even pointed a finger to indicate where it was. Suddenly I realized that my finger was pointing at a woman rather befuddled and amused; she then tells me, 'Hijo, ang 'Sanctuary of Peace' ay kung saan inililibing ang mga batang namatay.' In English: 'Son, this is where they bury those who died in infancy'.

That done, we finally reached the part of the cemetery where the mausoleums were. I was astounded at how large the cemetery was-- there literally rows upon rows of mausoleums! None of them, however, could compare to the size and majesty of the first mausoleum by the cemetery's entrance. A large part of the mausoleums we saw belonged to Chinese families; that was not immediately apparent, though, since many Chinese Filipinos tend to Hispanize their names; for example, often, an Ang becomes an Angeles in the process of 'Filipinization'. On another interesting note, many Chinese surnames in the Philippines are actually the Hispanized names of their forebears. Some examples are Chikiamco (Chi Kiam Co), Yupangco, Lichaytoo, Cojuangco. It was interesting to see, in some mausoleums, statues of Christ being venerated with joss sticks, and trays of sumptuous food for the deceased.

There were also some European-descent families. One mausoleum even had a family crest (Cabarrus), which I thought was pretty cool. Most of them were built in a rather brutal style that seems to defy categorization. I saw one that looked slightly Art Deco, and another with spooky statues of the Angustia and a relief of the Santo Entierro. Of course, I might be hallucinating; it is difficult to remember all the details. We must have walked for at least an hour, passing mausoleum after mausoleum, many silent and brooding, some bursting with life. We passed one of a Chinese family, and they were actually having a barbecue, complete with a grill, outside. I smiled at them, and they smiled back at me. The smell of paper money, incense, and candlewax permeated the air. It was a strangely peaceful thing to be among the dead. For a brief moment, I thought about the Final Judgment, when earth and sea shall give up the dead to bear final witness to the glory, justice, and love of God. It helped that the soon was obscured by a hazy mist, and that many trees were losing their leaves. I did not know what to make of these visuals, but they seemed to speak to one at a deeper level.

It was getting dark, and it was finally time to return to my grandfather. On the way back we decided to take another route, one longer but just as scenic as the one we took on our mausoleum-hunt. The fading sunlight burned golden, bathing everything in a haunted patina. Colors became richer, the wind and sound and heat even conspiring to produce a sense of blessed isolation. Many families were just starting to arrive at this time. Many of them we saw were praying the rosary; one family even had a customized set of black-beaded, silver-crossed rosaries for the occasion. Many were just enjoying the breeze, eating and drinking and toasting the memory of their beloved dead. Two kids nearly knocked me unconscious playing badminton, but I didn't mind. Finally, we were back at my grandfather's grave. The 'grown-ups' had already finished packing by the time we got there.

Sadly,we didn't get to pray for my grandfather together, since that side of my family has been Evangelical for some time now (please pray for them!). I took one last look at Peregrino, lying six feet under, and thought about him-- how he must have looked like, what his voice sounded like, how he was like when angry. Being that he died two years before I was born, I can only guess at these things. I said a brief prayer for Lolo Perry, before I finally boarded the car. It was an afternoon well-spent, I thought. On the way out, we saw more people arriving at the cemetery. Candles, some half-eaten already, while some were still tall and stout, lit the way out of the place.

I have only ever seen one picture of my deceased grandfather-- it was an old portrait, some forty years old already even when I was born. It showed a man with a high forehead, chinky, deep-set eyes, and perfectly combed hair. There was no trace of the difficult childhood he had in that photo; just a normal, everyday, ordinary, simple man. It's funny how death can change a lot of things, and at the same time, humbling. But even today, my image of Peregrino remains static-- he is, to me, forever the immaculately dressed man in that black and white photo I first saw several years ago. It is only now that I realize that I have his eyes.

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