Sunday, November 01, 2009

Scenes From A Cemetery

I visited my grandfather's grave on All Hallows' Eve. It was a gloomy day-- the fourth or fifth storm since the last week of September had just passed by Manila, 'like a thief in the night', according to my mother, howling and whistling in the hours before the gray, overcast dawn that heralded the start of the day. In the cemetery, a good number of people were already camped; some had brought tents to protect themselves from the rain. Flowers on pots were strewn across graves, from the humblest to the most extravagant. We passed by a row of mausoleums that housed some of the oldest and most venerable families of Manila, old colonials with family crests imported from Spain and the rest of Old Europe, and next to them, in some cases at least, those of the new-moneyed Chinese industrialists. We passed by a small 'shelf' where the bones of children who never saw the light of day-- miscarriages and stillborns and such-- were interred. And everywhere, there were candles that glowed coolly in the vast, cold, grayness of it all.

Finally we came to my grandfather's final resting place. He was interred in a small patch of land near the cemetery's walls; immediately behind were the cramped and impossibly small hovels of squatters, many of whom moonlighted as 'caretakers' of the graves. A nasty rumor which was probably true, anyway, held that some of them would sneak into the cemetery at night, taking away the flowers intended for the dead and reselling them for exorbitant prices to the families of the dead, eager to remember their departed kin. The storm, too, made its presence felt in the already gloomy cemetery. Part of the wall had collapsed, and the small creek that lay behind the wall had apparently overflowed. Tree branches were strewn all over the grounds. The grave next to my grandfather's, unfortunately, bore the brunt of it all. It looked as if it had been smashed with a giant mattock. A broken piece of masonry, probably from the old lapida that held the deceased's name, sheltered a weary and injured cat. I offered part of my biscuits to it, but it refused.

We lit some candles for the sake of my grandfather's soul, and left two bouquets of beautiful, white roses at his grave. It had started to rain again, and unfortunately, we had neglected to bring a tent with us. Some families near us were happily sheltered under their tents; I am quite certain more than a few of them would keep to the old tradition of the overnight vigil. Some plots away, two toddlers were playing badminton, unaware of the graves they were stepping on, and thankfully ignorant of the old superstitions that the dead would come to haunt them if their sleep were ever disturbed. I love stories like that. After saying a quick prayer for Lolo, we went on our way and left the cemetery. The visit had taken an hour at most, a lot shorter than what I had expected. As we exited, there was a steady stream of cars still coming in, apparently heedless of the foul weather that blighted Manila.

We left the old colonials and the Chinese industrialists and their grand mausoleums (one of them looked like a suburban home, really) to sleep in peace. We left the unvisited dead, and bade farewell to a former President whose tomb had practically become a shrine, where people would pray the rosary and kneel in humility. And although the rain had stopped, the wind howled and made the trees shake and shudder. They reminded me of the souls of the dead, beseeching the living to take a moment and consider their own mortality.

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