In all the years I have spent in the Western Pacific, I have come to know what to expect when it comes to the culture and customs of dealing with loss of life here. I’m not saying I fully understand the whys, I just know how it all plays out.
This last week (May 13th) my wife and her 8 siblings lost their mother. Their children, lost their Lola. I lost a sweet mother-in-law. The neighbors, and many that knew her, lost a kaibigan (friend). One comforting thing in all this is that she went peacefully and without pain. She was 85.
Simply stated, the customs of the grieving process in the Philippines are well ingrained and very Catholic. Even families who do not attend church regularly or who may not be strongly religious will fall back on Catholic traditions at the time of a death. The traditions that surround death and dying have evolved from indigenous, Spanish, and American influences, and that makes Filipino traditions unique. Filipinos typically believe that the more emotions shown while grieving indicates the level of respect for that person. It can get rather showy at times, and this outward display of caring and emotion shows how much that person meant to a particular individual. Filipino culture holds that the longer the grief, the better, and it is not unusual to see a length of 9 days from day of death until burial.
When I first lived in Guam in the 70’s, my first ever experience with the culture of dealing with death was when I attended the visitation of a friends family member, at the home of the deceased. It was explained to me that we were to attend a nobena, or novena, where the deceased is laid out in the home and where over time, a series of devotional prayers are conducted. A customary novena is a nine-day rosary and devotional. Out of respect to my friend, I agreed to attend this visitation.
When we drove up, there were many cars parked along the street and we had to walk about a block to the house. As we approached the house, I could hear much commotion. First I could hear the music. Then there was loud talking over the music. And the music…it wasn’t somber church music either…it was pop and rock music. There were tables and chairs set up under lawn tents. There was a big buffet table. There was even a roast pig. There were coolers full of beer and soft drinks. People were coming and going. The women sitting around at several tables were playing cards and Mahjong and the fellows were all gathered drinking beer and tuba (coconut wine) or whatever else got their fancy. My first crazy thought (I was only 20 years old) when I took it all in was could they be that happy that this guy is dead? So much so that they are throwing a wild party? People were talking and laughing, eating and drinking, kids were off to the side joking around and dancing to the music. I thought wow, this ain’t so bad…I could handle this. It was definitely not what I was expecting, nor had I’d ever experienced anything like it in my life.
When people live in a very close society, people will come together to mourn in groups rather than doing so in private. Family and friends are expected to come forward to support to the grieving family and not doing so is considered offensive to the family and the deceased. Filipinos judge the life and stature of the deceased by the number of people gathered for the visitation (and funeral), and when people gather during visitation, there is very open discussion about the deceased and one’s grief. Here in the Philippines, there are no (or very few) nursing homes and while people visit hospitals when someone might be acutely ill, most people are cared for and die at home. Respect for the elderly has always been the mark of Asian societies and in the case of aging parents, the tradition holds that the aging are cared for by the oldest child.
When death occurs, a priest is summoned as it is very important that the body be blessed to ensure their passage to heaven. The body is prepared (usually by mortuary services) and laid out for visitation in the home. As word of mouth spreads, family and friends begin to arrive. No printed obituary is needed to get the word out about someone’s passing as word of mouth spreads the news quickly. Here, after death and before the burial – which can take between three and seven days – it is typical for the family to cease all personal business. Instead of working or resuming normal activities, the family cooks and makes other preparations for the visitation that is ongoing until the burial. Feelings of mutual respect are shown at visitations. While it is respectful to attend a visitation or prayer vigil, it is also proper for the grieving family to feed and provide activities to those who attend. As mentioned earlier, the life and stature of the deceased is measured by the number of people who gather for the visitation. And with some families, it can become a production of sort to ensure that large crowds are in attendance. After all, it is about respect and the more people attend, the merrier. Tents, tables and chairs are provided by the community. Food is donated, prepared, and at a minimum, snacks and drinks are made available to guests and visitors. And, similar to what I encountered in Guam, games and activities (and drinking) are common. (As a late edit, I found out that these games generate payouts whereby a percentage of the proceeds become an automatic donation to the burial fund.)
I know that mama was a hard-working woman, raising 1 son and 8 daughters, and for many years as a single mother (she lost her husband to a motor vehicle accident in 1972). She never remarried. I also have come to learn there are many grandchildren, some of whom I am still meeting for the first time after moving here nearly two years ago. I can’t even begin to name many of the great-grandchildren (although I have taken special to at least one!). I have also come to learn that one of her most cherished memories is when General Douglas MacArthur handed her a cookie when visiting Samar once during the war. (¹· he handed out cookies to all the children but she remembered it like it was just her.)
Yesterday evening was the 3rd eve of visitation for my deceased mother-in-law, and when I left to head home, the tent filled with tables and chairs set up in front of the house was full of people playing cards and bingo. Inside, friends and family were praying or eating. My wife and her 7 sisters have stayed at the house since bringing mama home from her one week hospital stay a week earlier. They were all by her side for her passing and they will all remain with her there at her home until her burial on the 20th. Overall, it has been a long three weeks, which will include the 7 days of grieving. Respect for the elderly has always been the mark of Asian societies and after spending a good portion of my life in this part of the world, I have come to understand it much better. And I readily accept it.
1. Mama was so moved by General MacArthur’s cookie gesture, she named her only son after him…Artoro!( Arthur)