Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lessons from the Day of the Dead

Several lessons came to mind, all arising from the local Dia de los Muertes. Top of mind: family and novel-writing do not mix. Yes, it's November again, time for National Novel Writing Month. While I thought it was a one-time exercise that I had done and left behind last year, peer pressure won't let me drop it just like that. So here I go again.

Except that my word count on Day One was a dismal zero. Well, perhaps I'll do better today. Besides, I have 29 days left to make up for it.

Inconducive to novel-writing as it might have been, it also turned out to be a day for reunions for family and friends. All Saint's Day (and the slightly less popular All Soul's) are hallowed events for Filipinos. Everyone troops to the cemeteries to pay their respects to the beloved departed. Hence, you're bound to meet everyone, too.

So, second lesson: the Day of the Dead is still very much the Day of the Living. While we do commemorate our dead, the rituals we play out are still ultimately for our benefit. They're quite simple, really, even neighborly. Armed with an ammunition of candles, we hop from one tombstone to another, visiting the graves of friends we once knew. Short prayers said, and then it's off to the "How-do-you-do's" and "Won't-you-have-some-tea's" with their relatives. Thus are old friendships rekindled.

The Dead don't really have much need for candles and flowers and Hell Money. Apparently, it's we the Living who do. It's a balm for our own spirits as we attempt to do them just one more kindness in their afterlife. Joined in common ritual, it becomes a social event. No one knows this better than Filipinos (and perhaps, our cultural brethren, the Mexicans). Thus, our festivities.

Which makes me sad to see the pictures of columbaries that are all the rage in metropolitan cities. Columbaries, the Philippine Daily Inquirer assures us, is The Way to Go (literally) for this modern millennium. Cremation is neat, cheap, and convenient; after which, the ashes are stuck into a safety deposit box (or what looks like one.)

It just looks so clinical, and therefore, very sad. Gone is the festive atmosphere that marks days like these. Instead, it feels like the visit to the bank. I wonder: do relatives check out the ashes from their cabinet that they might celebrate briefly with their dead in a small conference room? Or do they just hang miniature wreaths -- corsages, really -- on the cabinet door?

Years ago, just after my Grandmother died, my Grandfather insisted on building a mausoleum to house her remains. Following his practical design sense, the mausoleum turned out to be quite breezy, reminiscent more of a modern apartment than a creepy crypt. Thank goodness for that. Never mind the cost, he said, he wanted to show her how much he loved her.

Grandfather passed away four years ago, and we laid his body right beside Grandmother's. Thanks to his foresight, we now have a solid roof to shelter under whenever we pay them a visit. I'd like to think we're the envy of our neighbors. It's a little joke that brings a chuckle underneath my breath as I say my prayers. After all, what's a social affair without a little bit of one-upmanship?

Final lesson, this time from Grandfather: let your love not be pusillanimous.


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