Published: November 7th 2008November 3rd 2008
Most of us have had someone close to us die. It leaves an empty space somewhere inside us that can never be refilled and the eternal longing that that person, who was once always there in the same way as the sun, the moon and the stars are always there, was still with us. How we behave after someone's death depends on our character, our relationship with the deceased, what is happening in our life, but also on our culture and the part of the world we live in.
In Western cultures it is common to visit the grave occasionally, perhaps on the anniversary of the dead person's birthday, or maybe of their death. The tradition is for anyone who does this to show their respect by standing at the grave with a long face and placing some flowers. Tears may also be shed. Any sort of laughter or merriment would be inappropriate. In the Philippines tears are also shed by some but there are other aspects of their rememberance traditions that would seem bizarre, almost outlandish to Westerners.
"It used to be a huge party in the cemetery," a policewoman told me outside the Nueva Valencia municipal cemetery on the island of Guimaras. The date is November 1st, All Saints' Day. "It would go on for two days starting on October 31st. People would have barbecues, dancing, drinking, a real fiesta, you know! But now it's all banned because sometimes fights used to start because of the alcohol. Some private cemeteries still have the party but this one is public so we can't. We have to have it in the Municipal Hall now. You should come, it'll be great fun, everyone has to wear a Halloween costume!"
I walked into the cemetery feeling somewhat self-conscious, not knowing what to expect and worried that I might be intruding. It was a maze of alleys and courtyards, the walls formed by stacks on whitewashed concrete coffins, one built on top of the other. In front of one a family with several small children stood, chatting and laughing, several of them holding umbrellas as protection against the sun. "Hello, Joe!" a couple of teenagers shouted as I walked past, putting me more at ease. Joe seems to be a general name that some Filipinos ascribe to foreigners. At another tomb a man knelt, carefully repainting the front, making sure that every inch was left the purest white but not a drop spilled on the name plaque. At the next a young couple stood, arm in arm, crying. They were staring at a grave with no plaque, just a short scrawled message in the type of pen used to write on white boards at schools, an entire life summed up in thick black ink.
I sat down on the grass in the middle of the biggest open area and decided to people-watch. In the twenty minutes I spent there, the young couple were the only ones I saw crying. Everyone else smiled and waved at me, or tried to force their toddlers to smile and wave at me. Those who came in large groups were more often than not laughing. It seemed that while the party in this particular graveyard had been prohibited, the general feeling of the day as a celebration of the lives of the deceased, rather than a time to show sorrow at their departure, had continued.
Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel on Panay