Death is an awful tragic thing, which no one wants to experience. We fear it, and in our American culture we move past it so quickly. When someone dies, we burry them quickly, and we try our best to move on, we fight our tears and we keep busy. Until I came here, I was okay with this, but something has really moved me here, and caused me to change my view of death.
Almost three weeks ago I was at a fiesta (a towns Philippine Party, there is one somewhere in the Philippines everyday). I was enjoying California wine (it was a really fancy party) and peanuts, (both extreme pleasures and rare) when my table suddenly all received the same text. We rushed to St. Pauls, the hospital, a place all to familiar to me, and a place that I frankly despise.
An aunt, who was about to turn 90 years old had fallen and hit her head in a place where she lost her memory and site. The week prior I went over to the Aunts house, she was an Elementary teacher and loved to practice her English with me, and she invited me to her birthday party before the family had even planned it. Many of the older people here love to touch me, and usually fight over holding my forearm. If I go to leave a house, they continue to hold it so I am unable to leave, and this aunt always had the best grip of everyone. No matter who was grabbing my arm, I could always feel her grip. She was strong and healthy, and then she fell.
Being at the hospital was on overwhelming experience, I saw family after family member arrive. I was allowed into the emergency room, and just as I came they were putting in her IV and the last thing I saw of her was blood squirting out on the bed. I cringed not because of the blood, but because of the love each child had for their mother. It was an awful experience.
I waited the rest of the evening outside and befriended a cousin who kept me company and eventually drove me home around 2am. While I slept, I thought about the family and how they wouldn’t be able to sleep, and how hard it is to think that if someone is hurt in my family I won’t be able be there. It’s a scary thought. And I pray it doesn’t happen.
Sadly, two days later, she passed away.
I have been at a funeral where there was an open casket, I remember seeing the body and being fearful. In one of my favorite movies, Home Alone, when the band member is driving the mother home he tells a story of how he left his child at a funeral parlor and it messed his kid up for a while. For these reasons, and American culture in general I have been afraid of dead bodies. Perhaps. I have watched too many scary movies, but to talk about them as I am writing this blog late at night is scaring me.
Yet, after my experience here, I view death so differently. I have been to 4 wakes so far, the body lays in a casket in a central location and
My first day at the wake, they let me sit with the family. Many friends and neighbors sat on the outside of the house praying and participating in mass. When I entered they sat me in the room about 2ft from the body. I tried my best not to look, but eventually I did, I prayed that it was going to be like an episode of truly and she was going to say “help me” and the day would repeat, but no such thing occurred.
The prayers when in Kinarya, my training was in Ilongo, and I really havn’t learned much kinarya so I didn’t understand a thing. It mostly sounded like soft mumbles, chanting of some sort that was in a tone I had never heard before. I fought tears. It was an unforgettable experience, they way her friends and family honored her, and loved God. Although I didn’t understand the words, I understood the love and I felt the dedication.
Filipino families are much like Hispanic families, meaning there are a TON of people. This isn’t difficult for me because my mother is one of seven. When I was young we would get together and have sleepovers, play games and eat food. The same occurred. All the cousins stayed up together sharing secrets, playing card games and spending the ngith together.
I fit right in to the family, well except that I don’t eat meat, but besides that it was lovely. Family came from all over, places PCV’s aren’t allowed to go, and across America. One of the cousins came from San Diego, it was amazing to see how much of the culture I have learned as we compared the differences.
A highlight moment was when the whole family got together to take a group picture. I offered to take the picture because obviously I’m not real family. Then after a few pictures the cousins, aunts and uncles insisted that I join for a few pictures. It wasn’t my host family who called for me to be in the pictures, but the people I had just met, it was an overwhelming feeling of acceptance that I didn’t know I longed for but suddenly felt.
The nieces and nephews who live in San Miguel and I know well told everyone I was their sister, and to everyone else that they could be my cousins. This made me really happy, and I can’t describe to you the joy I found in the countless conversations I had.
The strangest conversation was with a cousin who is writing her thesis on Indigenous cultures and sustainability. She shared with me about traditions in San Miguel. She told me they look for animals/insects to tell when its going to rain. The geckos in the house make a noise, “toca” odd numbers mean its raining, even that its not. If the ants climb up the wall it will rain. Black ants and brown moths mean fortune. It goes on and on. Then she asked me if I have visited a healer, those are people who practice doctor like traditions of the native degree. They put herbs on you and do other things to heal you. I told the cousin I had been sick most of my visit here and she said I needed to go to one, that a volunteer was here in the early 70’s and was sick all the time until she went to the healer.
She also asked me if my host mom had brought me to the back of the house to introduce me. I was really confused, “Introduce me to who?” She said that when visitors come the owners must take the visitor to the back of the house and say, “This is our visitor please do not touch her.” She never really answered who, but I think she meant spirits. I learned so much that evening it was really hard to take in, and I’m not sure what I’m missing. I told her I was having trouble sleeping and she said that is why.
When I got back to the house I told the helpers that I needed to be introduced to the back of the house. They asked me why. I told them I had trouble sleeping. One of them said, “in our culture if you can’t sleep it means that someone is watching you.”
OTHER TRADITIONS THAT AREN’T SO SCARY
- the family is responsible for feeding the EVERY person who comes every meal and snack. ( so for three weeks the family has been supply every meal)
- Prayers and mass are held throughout the day
- The wake lasts as long as it takes for all the family members to say goodbye (it could go for longer than a month)
- You are not to shower during the wake in the house, three days after you go to the ocean and wash
- Gambling- the first few wakes I went to I thought it was rude that people would be playing games and gambling and I didn’t understand how that was respectful it was just explained to me that a portion of the money goes back to the host family from the winnings, so to help pay for the costs friends and neighbors gamble and then kick back some of the money
- Gambling also helps with staying awake, someone is to stay awake with the body 24/7
The morning of the funeral was hotter than most. Around noon my family headed over to the house of the wake. We did another prayer hour. Then the family took turns taking pictures with the open casket. Each family took a turn. I didn’t participate in the picture taking, I’m still not that comfortable with the body situation.
There was a full marching band, the car with the casket, and then the family. Everyone wore black and white. Just as we left the house the day turned from hot to cool, and sprinkle of rain matched the emotions of the family as though the sky was also mourning the loss of such an outstanding person.
How did I know she was an outstanding person?? Almost as many people came to the funeral as did on Christmas. The church was beyond packed, and people brought their own chairs to sit outside. The messages and words of family and friends left me inspired to be a person as faithful and kind as a woman I barely knew, but wanted to be like.
The good news is the cousins from America were complaining how hot it was and sweating up a storm, it didn’t feel that bad to me, I think that means my body is adapting.
The Mass was from around 2pm-5pm. As people began to get up, I thought that was over, in comparison to an American service that was already very long. I was very very wrong. We then walked from the Church to the cemetery. All in all, from what I gathered we walked 3 miles. The walk was beautiful and sad. I looked behind me and saw a sea of people, the family prepared 1,500 food bags for after the service.
We then got to the cemetery and prayed again, they cemented the body into the tomb after friends and family dropped flowers in and said their last goodbyes.
They then dispersed the food, and we were at the cemetery well into the darkness. A gecko ran over my foot, and my legs were eaten up. I had no idea the day would go like that and didn’t put on bug spray. So fellow PCVers in case you are reading this, bring your repellents if you attend a funeral . Inside of the bag was a very special treat….A RECEES PIECES CUP!! I’m still saving it for a really bad day, but it was a really good end to the day despite everything.
Even now, it’s difficult to explain the impact that this experience had on my life. The way I will honor the dead, respect the dead and love the dead will be forever changed. I have never seen a group of people mourn in such a beautiful way. I have slept better knowing that “one of the people starring at me” could be mama opum. I don’t feel afraid, because I feel that the people who live here really love each other and while death is inevitable, life isn’t. It has really helped me focus on making the most of my life because I saw how many people were affected by one tiny woman. She died only a few weeks before her 90th birthday. I can only hope that I can follow in her footsteps and make a fragment of the difference she made into every life she touched.
Thank you mama opum for teaching me about life, and the love that you have shared with so many will forever be reflected through your family and friends.
Thanks for reading,