“Those Who Honor The Dead
Will Care For The Living”
It is early in the morning of Halloween, but the young men are already hard at work in the Cemetery. Pots of whitewash and metal polish, brand new paintbrushes and rollers have been purchased from the hardware store, to ensure that today their work will be of the highest standard. Soon, their mothers, aunts and sisters, housework done and armed with dusters and mops, brushes and brooms, will join them, for there is much work to be done today. The graves of their ancestors are being prepared for the biggest occasion of the year, the celebration of All Souls Day, November 1st.
As the tidying begins, stalls are already being set up along the road, which runs around the side of the hill. Cool drinks and snacks are on sale to refresh the workers as the heat of the day builds up. Mid afternoon, a flatbed truck rolls up, heavily laden with six portable ‘comfort rooms’, to the relieve crowds expected the following day. More and more vendors continue to arrive, staking their claim to prime positions. Packets of nuts and snacks, Mr. Chippy bags hanging ornamentally from awnings alongside plastic bags filled with crispy chicharon, and strings of yellow candles.
By sunset, the whole hillside is gleaming in the reflected sunset falling over the bay, the freshly dazzling white of the tombs tinged with pink sunlight and purple shadows. The stonemason’s work shining, re-touched, lovingly restored to its pristine condition.
Most of the tombs are of modest proportions, space on the hillside being at a premium. A modest plot, some ornamental balustrades, or wrought iron railings, perhaps a hint of blue or green paint to offset the whiteness all around and distinguish the plot amidst the many. I wonder if the ancestors are pleased to look down from heaven and see their memorial clad in glossy ceramic bathroom tiles? One family is the proud owner of a palatial monument opening into the hillside like Ali Baba’s cave. Inside, a spiral staircase can be glimpsed leading to the upper level, while further back, more rooms appear to lead off to right and left. This must be a family of influence and consequence to command such prestige. Another family, equally, or perhaps more prestigious, has a solitary plot on the other side of the road, a grassy sward, a solitary marble tomb. Pity the descendents who must spend their day here away from refreshments, comfort rooms and the sociability of other families.
The buzzing activity continues long into the night, maybe even all night, but early the next morning, the roadside is lined with cars. Traffic is already having difficulty making it’s way along the road, where cars are parked on both sides. Crowds of people, young, old, plus those in between, traipse slowly upwards towards their ancestors resting places. Though still early, the sun is already up and strong, and the climb to the top of the hill is not something to be rushed in such conditions.
Elderly relatives are carefully helped out of vehicles, and elbows offered to steady their way to the family plot. Those not carrying children or assisting others, are laden with provisions for the day. Bags and boxes, food and drinks, everyone dressed in Sunday best, clothes clean , hair shining, shoes polished. They bring flowers in bunches and bouquets, floral tributes to set on the freshly whitewashed monuments.
During the night yet more stalls have appeared. Ice tea in vats, bottled water in cool-boxes, fruit juices, and yet more candles, the trade brisk even so early in the day. Barbeque stands have been set up, the coals lit and fanned to smoking life. Chicken and pork inasal sizzling and perfuming the air, parcels wrapped in banana or coconut leaves, sweet and savory, bananas on skewers, the snacks an important part of the celebration.
All Souls Day. A day to honor the ancestors, to remember dear but departed loved ones. To pray for their souls, their blessings and their guidance. A day to celebrate life and to give thanks to those who have gone before. It would be easy to weep over the graves, but this is a time for celebration, there is a carnival atmosphere, and there’s nothing a Filipino likes more than a party.
It is a long hot day of praying, eating and chatting over old times. A family get-together, a chance for youngsters to get to know their forebears through the stories and anecdotes the old folk will recall. A chance for the elderly to laugh at the good times they shared with their loved ones, perhaps to shed a tear for their loss. The children nap away the heat of the afternoon but as the sun began to sink they wake refreshed and ready to play. It seems that even the youngest realized the solemnity of the occasion and for the most part manage to restrain their urges to run, climb and jump from tomb to tomb. As the daylight fades, an eerie glow hangs over the cemetary. Candles lit in remembrance have burned all day long and now cast a fairy tale light over the hillside, flickering in the warm breeze, a sight more beautiful than any electrical display of Christmas bulbs.
Once more, people are on the move. A line of Jeepneys snakes continuously along the roadside, while tired families begin to make their way home. Traffic pauses patiently, there is plenty to look at while you wait, and even if you need to hurry, there is nowhere to go in this crowd.
On the third day, the clean up begins all over again. Women return to scrape melted wax from stonework, and to take away the dead flowers. Almost no sign remains of the hundreds of vendors who lined the roadside yesterday, the only hint that they ever existed is crate after crate of empty Coca-Cola bottles stacked in their place. The C.R’s have also disappeared. The remains of the party swept away with a flick of a broom and the rub of a duster. The Cemetery returns to its usual peaceful state, ready to await next Halloween and begin all over again.
Over the gateway, shining out over the surrounding landscape to remind all passers by, the freshly polished letters of the inscription
“THOSE WHO HONOUR THE DEAD WILL CARE FOR THE LIVING”.
When you have all eternity to wait, a party once a year isn’t too much to ask is it?