A Funeral in the Philippines

by B.J. Stolbov

Maria Natividad Pascua Olivar has died.  Nanay Mary (Mother Mary), as she was known, was 76 years old.  Her husband, Ruben Olivar died suddenly 36 years ago, leaving Nanay a single mother with six young children.  Her eldest, Rowell, died when he was hit by a car at 6 years old.  Her next eldest, Ronaldo died suddenly of a heart attack 9 months ago at the age of 50.  With her four surviving children, two daughters and two sons, all now in the 40’s, around her bed, and after a long sickness, a confluence of incurable old-age illnesses, Nanay Mary breathed her last.  She died peacefully.

Funeral rituals in the Philippines are a combination of Catholic Christianity and indigenous native rituals.  As I have learned, Christianity came here from Spain, and Spanish Catholic Christianity, which has some North African influences, is different from the Roman Catholicism that I grew up around.  Spanish Christianity, and it’s offspring of Filipino Christianity, are more about fiestas and celebrations and less about hell and damnation.  Also, as with most Christian practices, the local indigenous rituals have been absorbed and exploited.  In our case, these are some Ilocano and Ifugao tribal rituals.

The funerals here go on and on and, in my opinion, for far too long.  Fortunately, the Olivar family decided that the vigil would not be the traditional nine days, as the Ifugaos in the mountains do; instead, it would be for only six days.  For six days, the body of the deceased is in the living room of the house, in an ornate white and gold coffin, under clear plastic, and dressed in fine clothes and makeup.  The lights are always on, candles are always burning, and CDs are playing Praise and Worship songs, some in English, some in Ilocano.  Someone, usually a family member, sits beside the coffin of the deceased day and night.  The house is always open and people come and go at any time of the day or night and stay as long as they want.  Unlike in the U.S., where we usually bury first, then eat and drink and socialize, here, they eat and drink and socialize (and play cards and mahjong), and then they bury.  We, Nanay Mary’s family shop, buy, and supply all these people with food and drinks.  (All donations of money and food are gratefully accepted.)  An aunt, an uncle, and neighbors prepare and cook almost constantly.

Every day, at about sunset, there is a religious service for Nanay, mostly from the Methodist Church where she belonged for many years, and once from the doctors and nurses of the local hospital where Mary was the Chief Cook and Nutritionist for over 30 years.

Finally, on the day of the funeral for Nanay Mary, the funeral company arrives at 9 A.M., picks up the coffin, and places it in a glass-enclosed hearse that looks like it should be horse-drawn, but is, instead, pick-up-truck drawn.  The pick-up displays a tarpaulin with a picture of the deceased and plays religious music and, for reasons I do not know, this one blows bubbles.  The family, relatives, and friends of the deceased are supposed to walk behind the hearse from the house to the church.  The funeral is at the Methodist Church in the next town over, 10 kilometers away, and so, we ride in a van.  The funeral procession is over a kilometer long.

The service at the church is solemn and respectful.  Grace, her youngest daughter, gives a lovely eulogy and thanks everybody that she can remember.  Considering that Nanay Mary comes from a large family of six sisters and four brothers, four children and their spouses, seven grandchildren, multitudes of cousins, nieces, and nephews, and friends, neighbors, and co-workers, comadres and compadres, and godchildren, this is a sizeable list.

Nanay is buried at the family plot beside her husband Ruben, and their sons Rowell and Ronaldo.  Everyone is supplied with white roses, which we place on the coffin, and then say our good-byes.  There is a short graveside service.  Here, they don’t bury in the ground, they bury above the ground in a crypt.  I am surprised to see that Nanay’s coffin is placed on the cement floor, with cement walls around it, and then her crypt is sealed on top with cement.  The coffin is not in the ground nor covered with earth.  Nanay Mary will not be “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” returned to the earth.

Being with a dying person has had the profound effect of focusing my attention and showing me what is important.  For me (Nanay is my mother-in-law), this is the death of an old woman who lived a long life.  For her family (Grace is my wife), this is the death of a woman they have known their whole lives, who was the first face they saw, who was a young mother and widow who raised and supported them, who encouraged and disciplined them, who worked long hours for many years and sacrificed for them, who is in so many of their memories, and who now they must learn to live without.  Death is something in the natural order of things, something that I now know without doubt that I must go through; we all must go through.

After the service, we return home.  At the door, there is a basin of guava leaves in very hot water, which is rare for here.  We wash our hands and face.  Later that evening, we build a large fire outdoors and burn the new white t-shirts and black ribbons that we wore to the funeral.  Then, we burn all the bedding that Nanay used during her sickness – sheets, blankets, and pillows.

The next morning, the Albularyo, a native practitioner of traditional medicine and herbalist, in this case an Ilocano, comes to perform her rituals.  First, she prepares a basin with cold water, blood from a freshly killed chicken (we will later eat the chicken in a stew with green papayas and spinach leaves), local rice wine (which we will not drink), and a concoction of native leaves, for our purification.  When I ask the Albularyo what the leaves are, she tells me that it is a secret.  When I ask her if I can use her name in an article, she tells me that I cannot.

The Albularyo pours buckets of the purification concoction over us as we wash our heads and bodies, then we rinse ourselves in fresh water from our well.  After discretely changing our clothes, they are put in a bag, to be thrown away, and never to be worn again.  Next, wearing clean clothes, we jump over, stand around, and purify ourselves this time with a smoky fire of coconut husks and unidentified barks and leaves.  Again, the Albularyo tells me that the barks and leaves are a secret.

Finally, at lunch, she tells us that there needs to be a service for Nanay Mary on the ninth day after her death, then on the 40th day after her death, and, at last, at 11 months after her death.  The Albularyo will accept no pay, but does accept some fresh fruit.

The next day, I add one of my Jewish rituals to the local rituals.  We plant a seedling, an avocado tree, in Nanay Mary’s honor.  It is in a good spot, amongst the roots of our oldest, but recently typhoon-downed, avocado tree.

Today, a week later, our newest tree, the Nanay avocado, is alive and healthy and growing.


B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and improving photographer.  He is the author of the novel Last Fall (Doubleday) and the poetry collection Walks (Foot Print Press).  He travels and explores in Asia, lives and works in the Philippines as a freelance writer and an aspiring farmer.  His stories, poems, and articles on travel, farming, and life are available for publication.  Please contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.


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