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A Different Way of Death

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It seemed more like a birthday than a funeral. Resting in a raised wooden coffin with arms folded and eyes closed, the corpse looked like the guest of honor awaiting her party surprise. She was wearing what must have been her finest white blouse. But instead of lighting candles on a cake, the other guests – mostly children – lay sprawled out before her engrossed in a game of cards.

We didn’t know these people. In fact, we had happened on their house while visiting relatives in Navotas, a shabby port city north of Manila. Seeing the door open and the crowd inside, we had mistaken the place for a club and wandered in looking for drinks. I don’t remember how my camera got involved, but before long I was snapping pictures of the deceased’s husband and young daughter posing proudly by her corpse. Later we got the full story; the family had just enough money for the coffin, but not for the burial. So, they were holding what we in the West might call an “open house,” soliciting donations from relatives and friends. After the picture-taking and cokes, we made a small donation and bid them adieu.

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I remember other unlikely encounters involving death in the Philippines. One happened in General Luna, a town on Siargao Island, where we came upon a restaurant that looked like it was open. Instead of entertaining customers, however, the owner stood against a far wall, welcoming well-wishers there to see her dead 12-year-old daughter laid out on chairs. A few years later when my wife’s aunt died in her home village of Caridad, we dropped by to drink rum with relatives as the old woman reposed amid flowers on the dining room table.

What struck me about these scenes was how public they were. In the West, about the only time you see a dead body, if ever, is in a formal setting at a church or funeral parlor. And when people speak of death, it is only in hushed tones and somber whispers.

In the Philippines, it’s different; death is part of life. Instead of hiding a corpse, you pose with it for pictures. And instead of whispering, you converse with your neighbors over beer.

It’s not hard to understand why this is so. Filipinos, for the most part, are deeply religious Catholics, so perhaps it reflects their belief in an afterlife and the survival of the soul. In a larger context, it is undoubtedly indicative of the strong influence of Hispanic culture wherein death is sometimes embraced and even celebrated as in Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

In the Philippines, I believe, poverty also plays a role. As does the relative lack of infrastructure, emergency services, proximate healthcare and institutionalized caregiving. I have spent most of my 69 years in the United States and never actually witnessed someone die. My Filipino wife, on the other hand, has had an uncle die in her arms after being shot by an anonymous intruder and been called upon to identify drowned relatives laid out in a gymnasium after their ferry sank. And all this by the time she was 24.

The country’s uncanny familiarity with death was driven home to me by another experience on that same trip to Navotas. Sauntering around town, we found a cemetery with long-abandoned burial vaults stacked atop each other like broken toys. And living in their midst, as if in an exclusive condominium complex, an enclave of squatters went about their daily lives.

A young girl attended a Kool Aid stand selling refreshments among the graves. A group of boys played basketball in a makeshift court surrounded by tombs. And a smiling teenager proudly showed off his “room,” barely aware of the names inscribed in its floor.

What does all this mean to me? I think it has something to do with the way I feel in the Philippines and why I keep coming back. There’s a kind of wildness here, an unpredictability, a sense that anything can happen and often does. Kind of like, I imagine, living in the Old West. And here’s the irony; being surrounded by all this death somehow makes me feel more alive.

David Haldane

A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and radio broadcaster, David Haldane (website http://davidshaldane.com/) fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications, including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists (available at the link below), recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be in Surigao City where, at the tip of a peninsula jutting north called Punta Bilar, he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. They hope to be living there soon.

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W. A. MillerDavid HaldaneJohn ReyesPaul ThompsonCordillera Cowboy Recent comment authors
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Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

David: Nice article and thoughts about a subject that we all see here in the Philippines pretty regularly. I would say at least three times a week, a funeral procession goes by on the main street outside our housing complex. These can be processions of 20 to 200 people; as you said, it is a combination wake and celebration of sorts. I think the fact that death is right out front here is a lot healthier than how it is sort of hidden away and taboo in the US. I enjoyed your writing. -Rob

Luke Tynan
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Luke Tynan

Interesting article, and I could be wrong but I think the way death is handled here is similar to the way it is handled in Mexico, maybe the Spanish influence. More accepting, more at pease with the event. Not sure, I just wonder as I have gone with my wife to several wakes and funerals over the last 10 years along with to the 1 yr Anniversary of passing and then the yearly trip to the grave for prayers.

John Reyes
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John Reyes

Interesting observations, David. I wonder if the scenes of death you described are culturally regional in practice, such as the restaurant owner welcoming well-wishers to see his dead 12-year-old daughter laid out on chairs, or the husband posing proudly for pictures beside the corpse of his wife. My personal observations relating to death, specifically that of my mother who died in 2001 in barrio Salaza (Palauig, Zambales), were much more subdued in comparison, especially during the wake. During the funeral procession, however, it was a different story. The following is my recollection of events surrounding my mother’s wake and funeral,… Read more »

PapaDuck
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PapaDuck

John,
Thanks for sharing the traditions of your Mom’s funeral. It sounds like your Mom was a well liked and respected person. It’s always enjoyable reading about your life growing up in the provincial town of Salaza, Zambales. It seem like i alway’s learn something new from each post.

John Reyes
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John Reyes

Thanks, Randy. Are you guys still living in Lipa, Batangas? Just heads up, you may be receiving an unexpected call in the not too distant future.

Btw, “mananita” in my story above is pronounced, “manyanita”. The proper spelling of this Spanish-derived word should have a diacritical tilde placed above the first letter, “n”.

PapaDuck
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PapaDuck

John,
Yes, we are still in Lipa for now. Take care.

PapaDuck
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PapaDuck

Dave,
Good post. Really enjoyed reading about the different way’s funerals are held. Have only been to one funeral here and that was the death of one of our trike drivers in our subdivision. He was a veteran so they held the wake at the airbase across from our subdivision. But it was much more subdued than the funerals that you mentioned in your post.

Ted
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Ted

Hi David,
I have found Filipino tradition surrounding death to be refreshing change from Western culture. The openness and celebratory aspect seem more natural.
Your additional comment about the Philippines being like the Old West (I use the term Wild West) is one that I have used to describe my experience there. Like you, I say it in a good way.

Jay
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Jay

Hi David, The bigger difference is what happens after the funeral. I would not be too surprised if caskets were rented and reused, but in the Philippines the dead are remembered. My wife’s father, Papa Leon, died 16 years ago. He was entombed in the nearest cemetery to my wife’s mom. My wife’s mom used to have to ride a jeepney to visit. A small cemetery opened near Mama’s house about a half mile away. We moved Papa’s bones. They were exhumed and put in a wood box, built by my wife’s eldest brother. We had bought a tomb and… Read more »

Queeniebee
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Queeniebee

Here in Cebu province, the death of a loved one puts pressure on relatives and townspeople to live up to the recent ceremonies of departed friends and neighbors. Funerals are now up there expense- wise with yearly extravigant fiesta celebrations .In the past a death usually meant a nine day novena, where a local woman for a fee, would provide a specific prayer session every night relating to the novena day. This still happens today too. In the past, relatives would take turns staying up as well as with some neighbors who would stay around day and night as a… Read more »

Bob Martin
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Hey, Queenie! Just wanted to say hi. It has been a long time, and just recently I was thinking about you and wondering how you are doing.

Queeniebee
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Queeniebee

Same here Bob–hope you are doing well.
It has been a little over four years now that we’ve been living here in Cebu. I’m still learning, but doing well.:)

Bob Martin
Guest

I was so happy to see your comment! Glad to see you back and hear you are doing well. Feyma is in the States right now, until about October or November. I might come up to Cebu in a few months. If I do, I’ll give you a shout!

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Some good and insightful observations in both the article and the comments. So far, I’ve had only one experience with a strangers death. While driving, I encountered some folks with a rope strung across the public road. I stopped, and when they saw I was a foreigner, they made slicing hand movements at their throats, and called out “Dead, Sir!”. I suspect that was the extent of their English. I wasn’t particularly worried, because I could see the banner provided by the funeral home for the deceased. And they were accompanied by the barangay police. My companion was sound asleep,… Read more »

David Haldane
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David Haldane

Interesting story, Pete. I think if I encountered a rope across the road manned by people making slicing motions across their throats, I would soil my pants.

Jay
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Jay

ditto

Paul Thompson
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Paul Thompson

Davis As a former kid from Boston of Irish decent we had a joke: “What is the difference between a wedding and a funeral? One less drunk!” Being Catholic I noticed a vast difference between, ours and friends who were Protestant or Jewish as to how we send the departed off. We Irish also play cards at the wake, and drink and eat. My first funeral in the Philippines I thought the person’s name had to be Sean Fitzgerald! The biggest thing (And I like it) was you don’t have to dress up except the WHITE T-SHIRT and shorts. It… Read more »

Paul Thompson
Guest
Paul Thompson

David;
I apologize for getting your name wrong above, normally I only misspell my own name!

David Haldane
Guest

No worries, Paul. And I think it must have been a great asset for you in the Philippines, being of Irish descent. We have all heard of Irish wakes, of course, but I, for one, never made the association between Ireland and the Philippines until you brought it up. So thanks for that…

John Reyes
Guest
John Reyes

Hi David – Johnny-come-lately here, as usual. LOL To my dismay, I just realized that I failed to include the name of the song and its lyrics that was played by the brass band many times during my Mother’s wake and funeral as originally intended. In my mind, the inclusion would have lent significant substance to the story I posted several days ago. In the following days I debated whether to issue a correction or not. A part of me kept saying that it’s too late to rectify the mistake. But, try as I might, I couldn’t let it go.… Read more »

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