I grew up with the Halloween – All Saints Day – All Souls Day fusion version of North America, Mexico and the Philippines. My mother decorated the house for Halloween and kept the decorations up for the colourful and lively Mexican Dia de los Muertos, then we paid homage to the dearly beloved in the tradition of the Filipino Undas (All Saints Day and All Souls Day). Think of it as scramble eggs that went trick or treating in the cemetery… sweet, colorful, and somehow supposed to be nourishing for the cultural soul. Burp.
A couple of decades ago, my parents started visiting the dearly beloved at the cemeteries a week or two before Undas or a week after due to the massive traffic snarls in Manila. Quite frankly, I agreed very much with this family “tradition” because the dead really won’t mind when you visit them. It’s not as if they are monitoring calendars on The Other Side and have reminders going off on set dates.
The dearly departed don’t need a special day of the year to be remembered. We hold their memories in the highest esteem by way of our traditions, actions, values, beliefs, photographs, and sometimes, language. This nonsense of flocking to the cemeteries once a year and making a big show of sprucing up the graves on or before All Souls Day simply because society dictates it or the community will talk about you if you don’t do it just doesn’t cut it for me. If you didn’t bother to visit on any other day of the year, or remember the dearly departed on any given day, why force yourself into the crowds on November 2? Flowers are expensive on that day – competing with Valentine’s Day prices, there is a shortage of candles in all the shops, traffic is a nightmare, and in the end everybody grumbles about this yearly obligation that has become simply that, a hollow obligation.
Filipinos will go out of their way to scrub and polish the graves, and in the provinces, even repaint them, a recurring activity I discovered in other countries as well, especially in Germany. The competition among the grave owners / gardeners in the cemeteries here is scary, because many of them are veritable masterpieces. Gone are the days of a single rose, a candle and a prayer. When my brother-in-law passed away a few years ago and opted for a natural burial, I began toying with the idea of a similar concept for myself and gave my daughter due instructions for when my time comes. Now that I am no longer bound to a particular person, place or country for death or burial, and refuse to be, I let my soul do the choosing.
Two years ago I found the tree where I want part of my ashes to be scattered and committed it to memory, not knowing when and if I would ever return to see it. Last weekend I revisited “my” tree in Lake Dümmer (Lower Saxony) and had another conversation with this tree in question. I was horrified by the fact that someone dared to desecrate the spot with some strange sculptures, which I duly removed from the photograph post mortem (pardon the pun). My life is all about serving others and offering comfort when and where I can. What better symbol to represent this than a big old tree that has been doing exactly this for the longest time?
For those passing by the graveyards today I share with you the words of John O’Donohue from “On Passing a graveyard”
May perpetual light shine upon
The faces of all who rest here.
May the lives they lived
Unfold further in spirit.
May all their past travail
Find ease in the kindness of clay.
May the remembering earth
Mind every memory they brought.
May the rains from the heavens
Fall gently upon them.
May the wildflowers and grasses
Whisper their wishes into light.
May we reverence the village of presence
In the stillness of this silent field.
– John O’Donohue, “On Passing a Graveyard”
(from the Book “Benedictus”)