By Karen Pagampao
Instructor: Carl Hefner, Ph.D. Anthropology 200

A Celebration of Death Among the Filipino

 

RING RING RING! The sound of the phone silence throughout the house as gets dressed for a birthday party for a little boy that had just turned a year old the week before. It was a humid and rainy morning on May 25, 1998. 1 picked up the phone to hear a voice on the other line pleading to talk to my father. The voice belonged to a cousin of my father's. It was he who broke the news that my grandfather's sister's husband had just died that day. My grandfather's sister and her husband took my father and his sister into their home in 1966 when my father decided to migrate to Hawai'i from the Philippines in search of work and a better life. The news brought sadness to my father and also oddity to my family. It was odd because our family had just been talking, remembering, and reminiscing about the relative that had just passed away. I thought it was kind of spooky and coincidental. The viewing of the deceased was set to be on June 12, and his burial at the cemetery was the following day. Nothing was said to me about the cause of his death. I figured it was because of old age. I later found out that the cause was cancer.

The concept of death to my family is not seen as a tragedy but more like an anticipated end to a person's distress, leading to the beginning of his or her life with God where happiness exists. Death is not the end but rather a continuation of kinship ties between the survivors and the deceased. Death is a crisis in life that has to be expected. The concept of death is also used to discipline a child, threaten an adult, to curse an enemy. It is also a topic of many conversations about who died, why that person died, when that person died, or that it might have been a good thing that he or she died. Through these conversations, observations, and participation, children learn early about death and how the system of obligations by the kin is enacted. Even before an individual becomes a responsible member of society, a Filipino child, like myself, knows what to do when someone dies.

I learned about death at a young age when my mother's sister died of cancer eight years ago. My family and I flew to the Philippines for three weeks to attend her funeral, an event so clear in my memory. The funeral rituals I experienced in the Philippines were so different from those of Filipinos in Hawai'i. However, the beliefs held by the Filipinos are the same in both locations. The term for death in the Ilokano dialect is natay. It is a "process of transformation from one state of being to another." Many view death not as the end but the beginning of another form of life hereafter. it is believed by Filipinos that a man continues to exist in an afterlife when he or she dies. The person's kararua (soul), continues to live and lead a sort of different life, one that is spiritual. This spiritual life is said to offer a place and time of eternal rest or suffering, depending on how the individual lived his or her life and his or her suerte <(fate or luck in life).

The soul, or kararua of the individual is believed to leave the body when the person dies and hover around the house. Many Filipinos claim that they have been visited by ghosts of the dead. The ghost may appear in physical form or with the features of the dead man when he or she was alive. 1, myself, have experienced a ghostly encounter. It occurred during my visit to the Philippines to attend my mother's sister's funeral when I was just eleven years old. I had fallen asleep in one of the rooms in the house of my deceased auntie. I was not visited by the ghost of my auntie because I remember the ghostly figure was of a man. In the middle of the night, I opened my eyes for a second and there it was, a white ghostly figure of a man sitting on the dresser. I remember exactly what I was feeling at that moment. I was so scared that I was not able to move nor cry nor yell out for my mom. I was so frightened that I thought if I were to make any kind of movement, the ghost would touch me. So I lay there so immobile and helpless, closing my eyes so tight hoping that white figure staring at me would go away. I fell right back to steep while keeping my eyes closed. The next morning, I told my mom about what had happened. She told me that the ghost that had visited me that night was her brother, my uncle. He was shot to death several years ago.

The spirit also leaves imprints or touches the loved ones, especially little children or the surviving spouse. The Ilokanos believe that the dead possess a spell, termed annong, which causes illness. I had experienced an annong during that same trip for my auntie's funeral. The first day I arrived in the Philippines, we headed straight to the house where my auntie's body was. The moment I first laid eyes on her body, I was afflicted with illness. The back part of my body and arms were covered with large red bumps that looked like hives or huge mosquito bites. They appeared on my body all of a sudden, out of nowhere. My grandmother had told me that those bites on my back and arms were signs of my deceased auntie embracing me since she hadn't seen me for a long time. It was a sign of her happiness to see me. My grandmother told me that her spirit was inside of me when the bites appeared on my body. My grandmother rubbed my body down with salt. The salt is believed to keep spirits away and prevent the spirits from inflicting illness on the living. Several minutes after the salt was applied to my skin, the large red bumps disappeared.

The Filipinos believe in a culture that has many superstitions. The causes of illness, the circumstances surrounding accidents, the motives of murder are often given supernatural explanations. Almost all kinds of illness are believed by the Filipinos to have some kind of supernatural underpinning. "Why did the accident happen to one particular person but not another?" The usual answer given is a person's suerte. The individual may have been affected by a curse. Death due to supernatural beings is viewed with fear and concern. The Ilokanos believe that a mermaid, or serena, can cause the drowning of a person swimming in the beach. Ilokanos also believe in sorcerers, or mangagamod, that can cause death to people by eating their bowels.

Death may occur with or without warning. Some premonitions about death are in forms of direct and/or symbolic dreams. Dreams about falling teeth, falling hair, falling hat, dreams of floods, snakes, and other black animals may mean that someone will suddenly become ill, be in harm or danger, or someone may die. The warning may be direct, like black butterflies or moths entering the house. The smell of a person's body odor may foretell death. I asked my mom if she had any premonitions or warnings about death in the family. She had told me that when she was living in New York in the late 1960s, she had a dream about her brother whom she had left in the Philippines. She dreamt that he was shot in the back. A week later, she had received a letter from the Philippines telling her that her brother had been shot by accident by strange man who mistook him for another guy. My mother's brother died of the gunshot wound.

In the Philippines, death in a household is announced by a loud wailing from the kin. Neighbors come to extend their help to the bereaved family. After prayers have been said for the dead, the corpse is dressed by an older person. The body is laid on a bed facing an altar-like table in the house for pre-funeral rituals. The hands are crossed over the stomach and a small cross made out of palm leaf is placed between the palms. A candle is placed over the right arm of the deceased One member of the family lights it, then blows out the flame. This ritual signifies that the family allows the deceased to start his journey to the land of the dead.

After the corpse is cleaned and embalmed, it is placed in a coffin, and the coffin is placed in the living room of the house of the deceased for everyone to visit. Neighbors and relatives observe necessary prohibitions. The corpse is made to face in the direction of the town church. Mirror and glass frames are covered to prevent the family to follow the deceased. A basin of soap water is kept underneath the corpse to delay decomposition of the body.

A vigil is held every night until the burial. The nearest kin, a child or sibling, sits beside the body in order to receive contributions or tulong. My auntie's coffin was placed in the living room of the house. Her hands were crossed over her chest with a cross in between. Her children and my grandparents were always sitting beside her coffin, as I remember. At the vigil that I had attended a couple of weeks ago for my father's uncle, his wife, siblings, and children sat beside him as people viewed him for the last time.

Kissing and embracing the dead good-bye takes place during the period of lamentation. During this ritual, members of the immediate family are cautioned not to let their tears touch the corpse. They believe that this will make it difficult for the deceased to continue his journey to the afterlife. It is believed that the people who let their tears fall on the deceased will soon follow the deceased to the grave. To prevent the tears from failing, wailing, shouting, and other forms of mourning are expressed. The Ilokanos term this kind of lamentation dung-aw. I actually witnessed this type of lamentation at my auntie's funeral in the Philippines. There were many visitors that expressed their mourning by shouting and wailing. It scared me the first time I saw this. Neighbors and relatives went up to the coffin, kissed and touched the body, and started to cry out loud, shouting out things like "Oh ... why did you leave us Rita (name of my auntie)! Why! Why! What have we done ...!" The lamentation of dung-aw is not practiced here in Hawai'i. At a funeral I recently attended, when it came time to view the body, people just took a moment to look at the body. Some cried, others just passed and moved along. No one had stopped at the coffin of my father's uncle and wailed and shouted in agony. My parents say that kind of lamentation is only performed in the Philippines. Why not in Hawai'i? My parents could not find a reason. They figured it was an embarrassing to mourn out loud for the dead since the practice is not apparent here in Hawai'i.

During the period that the body lies in state, the kin of the deceased must not take a bath. The house is not to be swept or else other deaths in the family may follow. People do not bring food home from the house of the dead because it is believed that the dead touches all of it. My father says he does not believe in this concept because he brought home food that was offered at his deceased uncle's house a couple of weeks ago. My father had brought home desserts and main dishes. He and 1 ate the food and nothing has happened to us. (Not yet!)

The Ilokano tradition of wakes called bagongons are generally solemn events. No chanting, singing, or playing of a musical instrument is allowed. It is opposite of the Tagalog tradition which believes a jovial atmosphere will follow the dead. Night-long vigils are characterized by card or domino playing. Coffee is brewed to keep mourners awake, and refreshments are served to visitors who come to pay respect. During my auntie's vigil, people were playing card games like pipito (thirteen card poker) for minimal bets as a way to keep awake. My parents say that people have to stay awake in respect for the dead, to watch over the corpse, and keep the deceased company.

Pompon is the Ilokano term used to mean burial rites. When the corpse is readied for this phase (which is usually two to three days after the person has died, depending on the family), its dearest possessions are placed in the coffin. The kin view the body for the last moments, kiss the hand, and then the lid of the coffin is closed. Before the coffin is moved out of the house, members of the family say the novena (prayer). The coffin is then carried out the main door (or in some places, out the window) feet first. The head must not face the door or window. My father says the reason head does not go out first is that the act symbolizes the exiting of a person. When a person steps into a room, his feet come in first, then the body follows. if the head was to go out first, it is believed that the spirit of the deceased will not leave the house. The widow, children, and immediate family members are prohibited from carrying the coffin or else they will become ill and die.

The coffin is then loaded on a hearse, a horse carriage, or carried by chosen individuals, depending on the family's income in the Philippines. Here in Hawai'i, the hearse is almost always used. Solemn music is played during the funeral procession that moves at a snail's pace. The music may be played by a band or simply an old style phonograph. The funeral procession in the Philippines involves walking to the church and the cemetery, no matter how long the distance is. Cars are not available in the Philippines because people in the provinces cannot afford them. The first stop is the church where the corpse is blessed and the lid of the coffin is nailed down. The coffin is finally taken to the cemetery where the deceased is buried in a rectangular stone box-like tomb called the longon. The belongings of the person are buried with him in the belief that those things will be needed in the afterlife.

My auntie's funeral procession was a very solemn affair. Her coffin was brought out of the house with her feet first. She was then placed in a hearse. My mom and her siblings hired a band to play at the procession. We walked to the church and to the cemetery which I thought took forever to reach. It was about five miles to the church and another couple of miles to the cemetery. The day of her funeral was beautiful. I remember the sun shining heavily on us because I remember sweating. We were all dressed in black, which made the sun's heat a lot stronger. Wearing black clothes is the most common mourning practice among the Filipinos. From the moment of death, the bereaved females wear a black dress and the males wear a black pin or cloth on their shirts. Black is worn throughout the year. Weddings, birthdays, other social activities in the family are not celebrated for a year after the death of a family member. In some places, widows are not allowed to attend any social function for a year. My auntie's clothes and other belongings were buried with her in her tomb. I have not seen anyone do this event at the funerals I attended in Hawai'i.

After the burial of the deceased, back at the house the kin wash their hands with vinegar, or such, in the belief that this would protect them from evil spirits. In some provinces in the Philippines the bed of the deceased is doused with sugar wine, or basi, to prevent its haunting by the kin. In some places, the bed is left in the sun for nine days, rice grains scattered, and rice straws are burned to exorcise spirits. My mom, her siblings, and her parents went to the beach the day after my auntie's burial. They stood in a line ranging from the oldest to the youngest in the family. Usually a group of elderly men and women (they may be relatives or close friends of the family) perform this ritual because they are seen as the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and have the strength to drive away the spirits. The elderly group burnt hay, mixed the ashes with water, then strained the mixture. The mixture was then poured on the heads of my aunties, uncles, and grandparents and worked into their hair. Finally beach water was used to wash the mixture out from the hair. This ritual was performed to avoid catching an illness and to keep the evil spirits away.

Group prayers held for nine consecutive days after the burial are called the novena. It is the cardinal rule that no sweeping is done during this time. Sweeping is a sign of "shooing" away the spirits which is seen as bad luck. These group prayers are held to help the deceased enter the gates of heaven. I attended the eighth day of prayer at the house of the deceased in Kalihi Valley and the night of the last viewing of the deceased at the mortuary. What was the significance of the number nine? My informant, a forty-year-old school teacher said nine was important because it referred to the term novena which included prayers such as the prayer of the rosary, prayers for the dead to help them reach heaven, and a repetition of Jesus' story of passion and suffering leading to his death and resurrection. She claims that there is a middle ground between heaven and hell which is purgatory, where one awaits the decision as to entering heaven or the other world. She also said that there is a strong belief among the Ilokanos in the afterlife or reincarnation of the deceased. She stressed that the prayers are a way to help the deceased on their journey in the afterlife. However, from her answers, the number nine still confuses me. I had asked a number of people why the number nine is so significant. They were not able to answer me. The books on Filipino cultures and beliefs also provided no answers.

During these nightly prayers, refreshments are served to the guests. On the ninth and final night of prayer, or makisiam, a feast is prepared for the guests. An atang, or food offering, is set aside as an offering to the anitos (spirits). The timing of the group prayers for the deceased, or novena, in the Philippines differ from the timing here in Hawai'i. In the Philippines, the novena for the dead begins after the deceased is buried . Because refrigeration is expensive, burial usually takes place soon after the person has died, usually two to three days. In Hawai'i, the novena is held before the deceased is buried and starts the day the individual has died. The difference is due to the preservation of the corpse.

Exactly one year to the day of death, wacsi (the final mourning) is celebrated by a feast and mass or prayer sessions. This occasion signifies the end of the mourning when the bereaved can resume wearing regular clothing.

Each year, on the first day of November, Filipinos pay homage to their dead. During the fiesta ti natay (All Saint's day), the Ilokanos visit the cemeteries to offer flowers, lighted candles, clean, and keep vigil at the graves of their loved ones. Some people may even place food on the tombs of their departed. They believe that the spirits of the dead visit the Earth on this national holiday in the Philippines, and make sure that they do not go hungry. All Saint's Day is preferred to Christmas because the deceased and the living get together in celebration.

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