Death in the Family
By Walter Ang
Oct. 29, 2003
Philippine Daily Inquirer
I was all of 13 years old. I was juggling the twin hurdles of puberty and high school --my body was growing faster than my skin and I was barely a month into my freshman year -- when I'm woken by my aunt one morning, her face full of sadness. Then I hear the news that pulls the rug from under my feet, and I begin a long arduous fall.
My mother had died. The hours and days (and years even) that came after was an unreal blur. First things first, I had to have my head shaved. It's a custom followed by Chinoys since you can't have your hair cut for 40 days. I'm not sure if you're supposed to get a haircut for practical reasons because you can't get it cut again for sometime, or if the act in itself is some sort of prescribed tradition. Someone accompanied my two brothers and me to the barbershop and minutes later, the manicure ladies were murmuring hushed tones of "Kawawa naman sila." while my hair fell in clumps to the floor.
When we arrive at the funeral parlor, we're greeted by requisite banners with Chinese characters bearing messages of condolence strung across the hall. People who are already there don't know how quite to look at us. The smell of incense smoke, wilting flowers, and the sweat and perfumes of visitors combined into a heady, sickly sweet mixture in the air. My head spun.
The next few days were filled with so many people coming and going, gingerly offering their soft condolences, pronouncing the word only we Pinoys can: "kondolens." I began to revile the word and the saccharine tone with which it was delivered!
My siblings and I went to a Catholic school and they sent over a priest to say mass. My mother had turned into a Born Again Chrisitan before she died and her group sent over a pastor or whatever they're called. My relatives, of course, had Chinese monks and nuns come over as well to chat and pray. All I could think of back then was thank heavens they didn't all come on the same day! I don't know if it's okay to think of funny things when someone has just died. I suppose it's one of the mind's defense mechanisms.
Sometimes I recall the internment day filled with clouds, sometimes I remember how hot the sun was, I'm not sure what it really was anymore. I do remember how my sister almost wasn't allowed to attend. She was born on the year of the monkey, and apparently, for that particular day people born under certain birth animals weren't allowed to join in things like burials. If there's one thing I've learned about Chinese customs there is always a loophole. They simply had my sister turn her back to the funeral procession at the gates of the cemetery. Problem solved.
I had never seen nor hear so many people crying, but there was something that I saw that was more surreal that that. Someone had been hired to videotape the ceremony! No one had told me about it and part of me wanted to strangle the guy. I don't know if videotaping funerals still happens now, but it's still one of the craziest things I'd ever seen in my entire life. Eons from now, if for some reason the archives of the National Geographic Channel's documentaries on death are ever destroyed, archeologists who need to study funeral rituals of Chinoys can come to my house and dig that tape up.
After they slid in my mother's coffin into its concrete niche, they started burning paper effigies of a house, a car, and other representations of worldly pleasures. This was to ensure my mom would have all these things in the afterlife. Then, being the eldest child, I was tasked to hold my mom's portrait in my scrawny arms and was whisked away into a car. I was made to sit in front, my family at the back. We were promptly driven off to a Chinese temple, leaving everyone behind.
I had stored these memories in the closets of my mind, but they rattled noisily again when I recently took a historical and architectural walking tour of the La Loma, Chinese and North cemeteries. During the tour, which I wrote about in detail for the November issue of MTV INK (shameless plug!), our tour guide had recounted some Chinese burial customs that made me think back.
I remembered wondering how my siblings and cousins and I -- our generation, would handle things when the time came for us to deal with our other loved ones' deaths. No one explains things like death rituals and customs to you. I impishly thought that one day maybe I could write a manual of sorts and earn a lot of money. A Chinoy Book of the Dead, so to speak. No first draft as of yet.
Despite the lighter moments that I recall, I also remember how deeply overwhelming everything was. How angry, lost, sad, scared and frightened I felt, sometimes sliding from one emotion to the other, sometimes straddling all together at the same time. How irritating it was to have all these strangers intrude on such a personal tragedy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Not being able to just grieve in your own space and in on your own terms.
Years went by and I eventually learned about the value of ritualized grieving and the five steps of dealing with trauma. I began to slowly appreciate what I had to go through, the cudgels of academic and logical thought easing the confused heart. I also learned to appreciate how time erodes the hard edges of painful memories into fuzzy mute images, so that one no longer has to remember with clarity and vividness whenever one thinks back.