I was in the supermarket last Sunday and candles were everywhere. In every imaginable size, shape and color. Quite a familiar scene when All Saints’ Day approaches. I bought four large candles. Nothing to do with All Saints’ Day but because we’ve been experiencing a lot of electric power interruptions lately. Merlaco’s services are getting worse. Sometimes, a mere gust of wind brings the power down.
Anyway, so I was watching all those people in the supermarket poring over the candles, checking the prices, the scents, the colors. Many were discussing with their companions how many they would need. One lady was even counting her family’s deceased relatives and assigning a candle for each of them.
It was the kind of discussion I would never have with anyone—we don’t go to any cemetery on the first of November. When my father died more than eleven years ago, he left strict instructions that his body was to be cremated and his ashes scattered along the ridges of Tagaytay City. At least, those were the instructions he gave me. He loved Tagaytay City. I accompanied him on many trips there. He loved to drive along rural roads and we would often leave the city, at the slightest excuse, just so he could take those long drives.
My grandmother, my father’s mother, outlived him. There was quite a tiff after his body was cremated because she refused to part with his ashes. She placed the urn on some kind of shrine in her house right beside the urn containing the ashes of another daughter who died just four months ahead of him. When she finally relented and allowed me to scatter my father’s ashes according to his wishes, she went with us and watched tearfully as I scattered both my father’s and my aunt’s ashes. After that, she told me that after her death, she wanted her ashes scattered on the exact same spot. Years later, I did as she had asked.
I respected their wishes. And I expect my wishes to be respected too when my time comes. No wakes, no prayers recited by rote, no eulogies, no flowers, no funeral. My body, my death, my decision. Just like my father and my grandmother made their decisions. It has nothing to do with religious faith or even the lack of it. It has everything to do with doing things in accordance with my prinsipyo rather than according to customs, traditions and expectations.
Why do Filipinos hold wakes? Why do most bury their dead? Why visit graves and tombstones? The word is remembrance. We want to remember how our departed loved ones lived and how they touched our lives. The wakes, the candles, the flowers, the eulogies and the funeral are symbolisms of remembrance. That was their real significance. That was what they meant. In the reality of today’s world, however, much of that meaning has been perverted. It’s now all about how much the coffin cost, the number of korona ng bulaklak (and even whether the korona is made with orchids or with just some cheap flowers), the size and location of the burial plot, the quality of the marble for the tombstone. I know a lot of people who will insist on expensive burial plots for their departed because that is how they show their love and respect for them.
Wakes and funerals have also become an opportunity to showcase the status of the deceased. If government officials send flowers, attend the wake and deliver eulogies, it’s as if the status of the deceased is raised many steps higher.
Towards the end of the month, millions of Filipinos will suddenly remember and take time to clean tombstones that had not been visited since All Saints’ Day last year. There will be flowers and candles amid a festive and picnic like atmosphere. Really… if all those vast expanses of land were utilized for the living rather than for the dead, who have no need for them, the Philippines might suffer less from housing shortage.
Housing for the living instead of graveyards for the dead is an argument that I once raised with my brother who told me to watch the film Poltergeist instead. I did. In the film, a family lived in a house near a cemetery. During a storm, landslides displaced the coffins and exposed decomposing corpses.
Of course, it’s fiction. But I would recall that scene in the film years later while watching a documentary taken, if I remember correctly, in Australia. Chemicals from the decayed corpses had seeped into the soil and found their way into the water source. It made me wonder what kind of sewerage cemeteries in the Philippines have and what precautions are taken to make sure that embalming chemicals will not find their way underground and into our kitchens and bathrooms. There is a high-end residential subdivision about 15 minutes from where we live and it is right beside an equally high-end cemetery. Since most residential subdivisions here draw water from deep wells… I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere near a cemetery. And I wouldn’t want my corpse to be the source of contaminated water either.
It’s really best to leave written instructions. Not to insist on what we want but to make those we leave behind understand and appreciate our reasons for wanting things done a certain way. Something like this:
When I die, burn my body. I have not taken, nor do I intend to take, out any memorial plan for myself. I do not believe in spending money over rituals for a corpse and I hope that you will respect my wishes when my time comes.
No flowers, no candles, no prayers, no sad songs. No churches, no wakes, no donations, no eulogies, no crocodile tears.
No strangers partaking of the free food–feasts–that are normally laid out during wakes. No long-lost relatives gossiping over my corpse. No politicians and wanna-be politicians making grand entrances and claiming how well they knew me.
No mausoleum, no crypt, no tombstone, no annual treks to the cemetery.
Instead, remember how I lived, what I taught you, what I stood for and what I fought for. That is my immortality.