As quickly as I heard the news, I was on a plane half way across the world. My grandmother’s death was no surprise but having to face my relatives after years of little to no communication, during such a difficult time made me feel uneasy. I landed after 14 hours and though the business at hand was very grim, the welcome and joy was very apparent after years of separation. Death was not the topic of the long car ride home from the airport. In fact, the happiness and joy of reuniting would have indicated no loss of a loved one at all.
The whole situation was so surreal. Everything seemed like a dream until I saw her lying in the casket. I walked into our tiny home in Manila and saw her open casket in the living room. My grandmother was dressed in the garment we bought her for her 80th birthday and her make-up was done; it looked as though she was sleeping. After I collected myself I walked out on to the street where tables and chairs where filled with relatives, neighbors, friends and strangers willing to offer some condolences. I looked into the faces of various people who showed no signs of sorrow but instead, smiles of welcome and eyes heavy with dark circles. For almost a week these friends and family members gathered together in front of our house to pray, to laugh, to play cards and to stay up literally all night with the belief that by watching the body in the evening and by gathering together, my grandmother’s spirit would not wander away. This ceremonial wake, which is common for Filipino funerals, was held to hold off the burial until we arrived in the Philippines.
A few more days passed and more food, more prayers and more people came and went. The morning of the funeral my family dressed in white, which is the color of mourning in some East Asian cultures. The family also wore black rectangular pins indicating that we were a part of the family in mourning. We all readied ourselves to begin our procession to the church and this is when the tears were allowed to fall. As my grandmother’s casket was placed upon the hearse we followed behind the moving vehicle; family members first while distant relatives followed and friends continued not too far behind. We walked following the casket for a few miles, marching to the sad tagalog song playing from the hearse; saying to us how we would not forget my grandmother. So much respect was given to the procession as on lookers watched, and cars and people moved out of our path. At the church we sat through a mass and once the mass was over we were driven to the Manila cemetery, where my grandmother’s body was laid to rest with my grandfather. The actual burial ceremony was the only time that sadness was really apparent. Proceeding the burial all of those who participated in the procession and the burial was given food as a thank you, to be served right there in the cemetery or to be fed back at the house if they had missed the ceremony.
Many of these customs and traditions are practiced due to superstitions or spiritual beliefs. After the burial, it is often a custom to offer prayers for the dead every evening for 9 consecutive nights because it is believed that on the ninth day the soul of the dead moves on from the world of the living. It is also very common to conduct additional evening prayers for 40 nights after the 9 day period, and then on the one year death anniversary (Ferguson, 2011). Another superstitious belief is that death comes in the number of threes; so when one person dies it is believed and feared that two more deaths will come. This belief came about because “coincidentally death comes in threes when it comes to members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines” (Aquino, 2011) and because the Philippines is very superstitious and devoted Catholics, this coincident created this fear. After over a week long wake, a procession and even praying for over a month, so much is done in assurance that the spirit will transition into death with ease.
I’m not sure if all these customs are really done to help the dead, or to help the grieving family members let go of their lost loved ones. Regardless of the reason, all of these Filipino traditions and beliefs are why death in the Philippines is not a time of sorrow and grief, but instead a time to be with family in appreciation of the people surrounding you. Witnessing my grandmother’s funeral was an amazing experience. The rich Filipino culture showed through such a tough time and helped me understand that death was not something to mourn but a celebration of the life that was lived.
Aquino, L. (2011, October 29). Bishop: Death comes in 3’s. Retrieved from http://www.mb.com.ph/articles/339431/bishop-death-comes-3s
Ferguson, R. (2011, August 16). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://cebuexperience.com/living-in-the-philippines/filipino-culture/filipino-culture-funeral-customs-and-beliefs/
Miele, J. (2008, September 17). Filipino funerals…quite a “send off”!. Live in the Philippines, Retrieved from http://liveinthephilippines.com/content/2008/09/filipino-funerals-quite-a-send-off/