Araw ng mga Patay, the day to commemorate the souls of departed friends and family is one of the few times of the year that transforms the streets of the Araw Ng Mga Patay the public market. For despite the morbid literal meaning of the occasion (Day of the Dead), it is in fact a vibrant two-day affair that turns gloomy cemeteries into a carnival-like setting.
The day is celebrated November the first, but preparations for it usually start very early the day before, or sometimes even days before that. I would always wake up on the last day of October, eagerly anticipating the almost magical transformation that has occurred overnight in front of our apartment, located on the main street right across from the market.
For overnight, literally dozens of flower sellers from the northern province of Baguio would descend into our part of town bringing with them hundreds of buckets of fresh cut flowers to arrange into spectacular bouquets, ready to buy and take to the dearly departed on their special day. From being the ordinary drab and boring sight of concrete, the sidewalks for the next two days will be awash with colours from the blooms and the lush greenery to accompany them. I can still see thousands of gerbera daisies (Ate’s favourite) in different pastel colours, golden marigolds and everlasting strawflowers, velvety roses in deep scarlet, soft pinks or fresh white and yellows, giant rosal as large as cabbages, thin reedy gladiolas in variegated hues, all vying for attention side by side waiting to be transformed into perfect arrangements.
As soon as I was old enough, my father started taking me with him to the cemetery to clean and spruce up the grave of one of my sisters who had died many years ago at childbirth. We would go right after breakfast, a bucket of whitewash and a paintbrush to give the concrete crypt a fresh coat of white. This may sound like a straightforward enough task, but I had always wondered how my father knew where the crypt was located, as apart from the small concrete grave, there was no marker or a plaque with my sister’s name on it. I suppose as a father, one never forgets details like this, and year after year we would go and manage to locate the exact same place.
In the meantime back at home, my sisters would have bought their pick of this year’s flowers and would be busy arranging them for the early evening visit to the cemetery. Late in the afternoon we would all take a jeepney to the site, a whole brood of seven or eight of us, with the flowers and candles to place on the grave. Sometimes my father would come, but my mother never went: her illness prevented her from going in case the large crowds precipitate a seizure.
What a crowded, noisy place the cemeteries would have become! Traffic leading to and away from the area would always be jam-packed and excruciatingly slow; sometimes it was better to have gone on foot were it closer than it actually was. Navigating the crowds once in the cemetery itself is another matter altogether, and it is then that one really needed to know where to go to find the proper spot, so thick the crowd would always be. Eventually we would manage to get to the location, set up the flowers and light the candles and after a little while set off to wander around, taking in the atmosphere and the sights.
And what interesting sights to behold: the whole place at dusk would have been all aglow with thousands of candlelight, dancing in the warm November breeze, casting an almost ethereal ambiance to the environment, with flowers of all kinds perfuming the night air. Children big and small would be running all over the place, hopping from one candle to the next to collect the molten wax and form it into a ball, in a game of who can collect the biggest wax ball of the night. This prized possession will then be expected to turn up at school the next day, especially if one could claim the bragging right of having collected the largest, most perfect globe.
Particularly interesting to see were the tombs of deceased Chinese. For instead of the offerings of flowers, bowls of food and other delicacies were always offered to the souls of the dead, complete with chopsticks, as if waiting for a banquet to start. Jokes would always be made about raiding the sumptuous food afterwards, but no such thing ever occurred as far as I know, so deep is everyone’s respect for each of these offerings that to have done so would incur the wrath of these souls, otherwise peacefully resting in their eternal sleep.
An hour or so later and we were all ready to start the long trip home, content with the feeling that we, the living have done our duty to our departed loved ones, and return to the normalcy of everyday life, in the back of our minds silently praying that we’ll all still be around a year later to do it all over again.
Unless of course, something in between goes awry. It could be as mundane as a change in the unpredictable tropical monsoon season, when late November rains can just as easily turn a perfectly hot sunny afternoon into an evening of torrential downpour, flooding the cemetery with water ankle-deep, the raindrops whipped by gusts of cold wind effectively preventing candles to be lit in the open air and trashing the artfully arranged flowers into heaps of broken stems and blossoms.
Or the last year my father and I went in the morning to paint the crypt anew, and find it completely gone, with a much newer and larger, but unfamiliar grave in its place. My father was crest-fallen and we left the place, the bucket of whitewash feeling much heavier than when we set out earlier. My mother was distraught at the news; that evening she placed the flowers at her little altar and lit candles, all the while wondering what had become of the remains of one of her older children.
© August 2007