Bringing life back to the dead

Every November starts with the days of commemorating the dead.  More than just a two-day public holiday, it’s a time to spend with loved ones – both living and deceased.

The one day that the topic of death does not seem so harrowing is the traditional Undas: the Day of the Dead, more commonly known as All Souls’ Day.  In our country we pay quiet, contemplative visits to our dearly departed; this is the day we pay homage to those who have passed on.

In other countries, however, the ways of remembering the dead are different – much grander, in truth.  Commemoration, in contrast, might even be very festive and joyous.  Such examples would be Japan’s Obon or the Festival of the Lanterns, Cambodia’s P’chum Ben, and Mexico’s Los Dias de los Muertos.

The Obon or the Japanese Festival of Lanterns is a celebration not quite like All Saints, but much more like Halloween.  It is believed that the souls of the deceased return to the world of the living – not to scare or antagonize, but merely to visit.  As with any feast, it is just celebrated with family, friends and food, and at the end of the ceremony, the locals leave paper lanterns outside their homes to guide the spirits on their way home.  It is actually more of a family reunion … with a twist.

Los Dias de los Muertos commemorates the two days when the dead ‘return to our world’ – November 1 and 2.  It is a time for the newly departed to come to terms with their loved ones whom they’ve left behind.  While one might think the lavishly decorated skeletons grinning beneath colorful robes and enough accessories to rival a jewelry store are twistedly creepy, this festival is one of the most well-known and widely-celebrated Mexican holidays – a very high-spirited time of the year.

On the other hand, the P’chum Ben marks the end of a fourteen-day celebration called the Pak Ben wherein Cambodian Buddhists offer food and gifts to their monks and ancestors.  There is the very thoughtful gesture of leaving rice mixed with sesame seed along the ground for hungry ghosts who have no one to commemorate them.  On the fifteenth day, this P’chum Ben is, again, a time to celebrate with family and friends – though in its case, mostly the living, as everyone has gathered after paying tribute to the dead.

These are all popular festivities, but of course nothing is as widespread as the largely Western idea of Halloween.  This event, characterized by its telltale symbols – jack-o-lanterns, costumes and trick-or-treating – has become more popular not only here in the Philippines but in many other countries closer to its Wiccan source, such as Croatia, Austria and Belgium.  Unsurprisingly, it is still most popular in North America and Canada, as well as in its birthplace, Ireland.

Like many other countries, we don’t celebrate the dead through festivals in the Philippines.  We commemorate privately, though still in the company of our immediate families and close relatives.  It is usual to visit the cemetery and offer flowers, candles or even little tokens – a bible or a rosary, perhaps – at the graves of our dearly departed.  In many cultures, a feast is prepared at the grave, and often food is left for the deceased once the family treads along on its way.  Flowers are a universal offering, and always have their place to brighten up the gravesite. Candles are for us an old tradition … taken literally, they light the way for spirits as they return to the world of the dead once the day is through, similar to the lanterns of the Japanese Obon.

In any common person’s visit to the cemetery or mausoleum, he or she is bound to witness this: a family walking along with the parents telling their children, “This is Grandma.” “This is Grandpa.” “I miss them so much.” “You would have loved them.”

It is the kind of exchange that leads the common person to wonder, what could be running through the children’s minds as they look at their grandparents’ grave?  If they are a little older, they will more or less understand the concept of death.  But what do they think of paying homage to a person they have never even met?

People who visit graves of relatives whom they had known like their mothers, fathers or grandparents come to remember the time they had spent together while the deceased were still alive.  They pray to spirits, whether they believe that these spirits come back on All Souls’ Day or that they are watching over the living from paradise.  They pray for the souls to rest in peace and their families remember them as they had been in life.

But for people who had never met their dearly departed, they imagine.  They picture what the deceased might have been like, based on stories from their parents or relatives who had been around to witness before the deceased had passed on.

In a way, these people bring spirits back to life just as much as those countries who celebrate the Day of the Dead do.  Some cultures celebrate with the dead at feasts – little children imagine dinners with the lolo they’ve never met.  Most of them offer flowers – kids and grown-ups place flowers on lola’s grave and imagine how pretty she was then.  At the end of the day when nearly everyone around the world places candles or lanterns to light the way home, people return to their daily lives, coming to terms with the deceased – guiding them back to where they belong.  The dead do come to life – at least in people’s imagination, where they can be as vibrant and as special as they want to be.

Undas is our country’s own tradition, but each person celebrates All Souls’ Day in another, more personal way.  Each person commemorates not so much the death of a loved one, but the life that the deceased had and might have lived.  People take this day to remember the dead and to appreciate the life that was left to them, life enriched by their dearly departed.

It’s no wonder that All Souls’ Day continues to be celebrated in as many ways the world can think of.  This day to commemorate the dead is more than important; it’s necessary – for them who have passed away, and for us who are still here.

Belle Justiniani

By Belle Justiniani

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