Sunday, February 17, 2008

72. KEMATEN: A Time To Mourn

UNTIL IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO GO. A funeral procession in Betis of a prominent Kapampangan. Priests, in full regalia, often accompanied the dead to their final resting place, a practice rarely seen today. Ca. 1938.

All Saints’ Day is always a time for remembering our loved ones who have moved on to the Great Beyond. Like the thousands of people who will troop to the campo santo today, I too, will be lighting candles and offering prayers for the souls of our dear departed: my father Gerardo Jr., my paternal grandparents and my twin sisters and brother who all died in infancy and who are collectively at rest in our family plot at the old Mabalacat Municipal Cemetery.

The custom of paying homage to the dead is a universal one, practiced early in Egypt by keeping lamps burning all night for the lord of the underworld, Osiris. In Celtic Ireland, burial caves were opened so that spirits could come up for airing, and candles were lit inside to illuminate them through the night. The Philippines too, has a long tradition of burial practices that called for disposal of the dead in hollowed-out wood. In other regions, the corpse was wrapped in mats or tree bark, interred in caves or underground or kept in jars as a form of secondary burial. All these, of course, were formalized with the coming of our colonizers and it was during the rule of Spain that the 1st funeral parlor was established in the Philippines in 1883. La Funeraria was founded by Carlos March at No. 3 Plaza Goiti, Manila. The parlor offered hermetically sealed coffins imported from Europe, advanced embalming techniques, assorted epitaphs, “French-like packing” (?) and guaranteed permanent service.

The Church dictated the rituals associated with the dead and the dying. The priest was always taken to the house of the sick for confession or “Beatico”. Back then, fees were being collected by unscrupulous frailes for walking the dead to his burial ground or for ringing the church bells a certain number of times. During a funeral procession, prayers were intoned at regular intervals called “posas”. When Todos Los Santos arrived, a misa cantada was said first at the church before people flocked to the cemeteries to decorate the tombs with calla lilies, marigolds, everlasting and palung manuk flowers.

Despite the rigid rules of the Church, folk traditions in Pampanga continued to be observed. There were certain portents of death that old Kapampangan folks believed in: the appearance of a black moth, a dog digging up the ground for no apparent reason, the dreaming of a loss tooth, combing one’s hair at night. To avoid untimely deaths, one should neither position his bed towards the door nor join a picture-taking session if the number of subjects is either 3 or 13. Early Filipinos believed in the mystical number 7, representing the 7 holes of the head. Our pre-colonial ancestors thus covered their dead’s faces with a death mask cut out with 7 holes. But Kapampangans also believed that an invisible 8th hole exists at the crown of the head of certain special persons, gifting them with the power to liaise between the dead and the living.

There are certain no-no’s when a death in the family occurred. The family of the deceased were prohibited from bathing, cleaning the house or getting a haircut. If the toes of the dead curled inwards, beware of another impending death. There was also the prevalent practice of burying a rosary with the dead, but it had to be cut first lest the dead became restless. (Death is the end of our physical life, but a rosary, in a chain form, is “endless”, so it also needs to be cut).

When it was time for the dead to be buried, the coffin, as was the custom in old Mabalacat, was placed in a “lankayan”, a stretcher of bamboos, which was then carried on the shoulders of 4 persons. Children and infants were carried across the coffin to prevent hauntings by the deceased. Taking out the deathbed through the window is another sure way to ward off ghostly encounters. After the interment, 9 days of pangadi and games followed, with young and old partaking in bulaklakan or juego de prenda, karagatan, card games and bugtungan (riddle games). In San Luis, a seat for the dead was reserved at the dining table on the 3rd day after the burial. Instead of food, though, a plate of ash covered with karakarikucha leaves was served for the soul so that it would give clues on where to find some hidden treasure; only after 9 days was real food offered.

The practice of pangangaluwa, prevalent in Tagalog regions, originated from the belief that souls in purgatory need not just prayers but material things to make the transition to heaven. As such, people, impersonating souls, go from house to house, seeking for alms as they sing gosos that end with an urgent exhortation to “hurry up or the heaven’s gate will close on us”. The period of mourning ends after a year—lukas paldas—and on this day, the black clothes worn by the bereaved family are finally replaced and kept in the baul. A pa-misa and a grand salu-salo cap this day, with everyone reminiscing about the past year and of the days with their beloved departed. Tears are wiped, laughter returns. Indeed, to everything, there is a season.
(1 November 2003)

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