As Filipinos observe the Undas this weekend, I am reminded of my grandmother who passed away nearly two years ago. It’s not easy when you lose someone you love, but on the flip side, you gain a better perspective of life. You appreciate the little details and are reminded to not take anything for granted. It’s because of this realization that sometimes I find myself wanting to visit cemeteries. It’s somewhat morbid, thinking about it, but when you get past the sense of creepiness from the idea of walking among tombstones, it’s actually an interesting experience.
A few days ago, a friend and I decided to go to St. John Cemetery. I wanted to take pictures of people preparing the tombs and grave markers, as well as gain insight on how people living near cemeteries actually feel. Are they scared? Do they see ghosts? And so on. I haven’t written about that trip so I forgot what the people’s answers were, but the trip was nonetheless an enlightening one.
This weekend, some people, especially those who are familiar with Western traditions, prepare for Halloween by dressing in costumes and buying candies to be given away. But the weekend for many Filipinos mean paying respects to loved ones who have passed away. It has been a Filipino tradition, especially among Catholics, to observe Undas and commemorate the souls in purgatory, where they are cleansed of their sins before they go to heaven.
Millions of Filipinos gather in various cemeteries across the country during All Souls’ Day, on November 2. The event is usually paired with All Saints’ Day on November 1, and these pair of dates are collectively known as Undas. (Normally, these dates are declared as holidays, but this year November 2 was declared as a working day.) In the days leading to the event, cemetery workers visit the cemetery to clean the graves. On Undas itself, families bring flowers and candles to their relatives’ graves, as well as offer prayers. Some even bring food and drink as offering. A Mass is usually held in the cemetery. It’s not uncommon to see families camping overnight by their relatives’ graves while singing, eating and playing card or board games. This tradition was started during the Spanish period, as the colonial government attempted to Christianize the indigenous rituals associated with honoring the dead.
But remembering the dead isn’t exactly a Western concept. Long before Spaniards came to our shores, our ancestors have been celebrating and honoring the memories of the dead. For example, in Benguet, there’s an indigenous practice in which a dead person is blindfolded, with the arms and legs tied, and placed on a chair in a sitting position. The chair is then placed next to the door. During the eve of the funeral, tribe elders would conduct bangil, a rite in which the life of the deceased is chanted. When the dead is set to be buried, onlookers would hit bamboo sticks together to lead the dead’s spirit to heaven.
While I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant background, and we don’t believe in purgatory, our family nonetheless observes the solemn occasion of All Souls’ Day by visiting the graves of our deceased relatives – my grandmother included. We bring flowers and honor their lives, not necessarily on Undas itself, but in one of the weekends in November.