“Is that normal?” a friend asked when I told her that we would be burying our departed loved one in a gravestone built in the backyard.
In the northern Philippines, particularly in Benguet, this is quite normal. Even when there is a public cemetery, the Cordilleran people still practice burying the dead near their homes – usually in a residential compound or a common family backyard.
This funeral tradition stems from being close-knit. Family members want to stay close and be together even after death. It also signifies proof of land ownership.
It is also seen as an assurance that the property that the dead left behind would not be sold. To open the tomb and remove the remains from the property is not a simple act. It would require rituals. Certain practices must be observed.
Is it allowed? In a way, it is. There is no permit needed to bury the dead in one’s backyard since it is a local tradition deeply ingrained in their culture. Although, there have been some changes in this tradition, like embalming.
In the olden times, people didn’t practice embalming the corpse. They wanted the body to be as natural as possible before burying or mummifying. That means no preservative chemicals such as formaldehyde injected in the body, no touch-ups with cosmetics, and what have you.
However, with the ruling perception that the bodies could be a source of contagion to the public, embalming was introduced. People started to think that this process is necessary to prevent the spread of possible diseases.
Embalming forestalls the decomposition and makes the body presentable for the lamay, the tradition of holding a wake to commemorate the dead person. Paglalamay usually lasts from three to seven nights, with family members, relatives and friends gathering and participating in the vigil.
Filipino Muslims, however, do not practice lamay. Based on their religious custom, the dead should be buried within 24 hours after the time of death.
For the wake, the body would be put in a coffin. In Benguet, the coffin should not have any nails or metal. The dead should be devoid of jewelry and other metallic elements. Based on tradition, nails and metals often rust, which can contaminate the body. When the body is contaminated, it would cause misfortune or illness to the living family members.
This might be the reason some, especially those who can afford, choose to bury their departed in hollowed-out trees. The corpse is often entombed vertically inside the tree trunk. A likha or anito (a statue) is also buried with the body to protect it.
In Quezon, the dead is entombed inside a limestone sarcophagus. The Apayaos and/or Isnegs wrap the deceased in ikamen (a mat), while the T’bolis wrap it in a special T’nalak.
Giving of abuloy is another tradition practiced in the Philippines. When we held the wake for my sister-in-law, most gave monetary support. But there were some who brought food, agricultural products, and a pig to be butchered and served to the mourners and guests. Others contributed their time by helping cook and singing during the vigil.
One question that is often asked: how much abuloy should one give? I’d say, the grieving family would be grateful for any amount as long as it comes from the heart.
In Benguet, being a closely-knit community, the family of the departed would not need to worry about the funeral arrangements and financial obligations. The relatives, friends, and members of the community usually pitch in whatever they can contribute to relieve the burden of the grieving family.
This act of bayanihan has always been present in Filipino cultures. The kindness and generosity that one received during this trying time would be paid forward when others also lose a family member.
On the day of the libing, we wore white. Some cultures traditionally wear black or any somber colors. Wearing white or black during funerals indicates sympathy for the grieving family, respect for the deceased, and a sign of mourning.
Since we were burying our dead in the backyard, the coffin was carried by some of the family members, relatives, and friends after the funeral mass through the front door and towards the backyard where the nitso is.
The carriers make sure that the casket would not touch any part of the house to prevent the spirit of the dead from loitering and bringing misfortune to the family. In other cultures, when a casket hits any object during the funeral, it means another person will die soon. There is also the belief that death in the family comes in three.
Before closing the nitso, we threw flowers wishing for the soul’s safe journey to the Afterlife. A pack filled with personal belongings of the deceased was placed on top of the coffin to help her with her next journey.
After the burial, most mourners do their pagpag, a Filipino pamahiin that says those who attended the funeral or wake should not go straight home unless they want the spirit of the dead to follow them home.
For the next nine days, the bereaved family would do the novena. This period is called pasiyam, culminating on the ninth day with a service followed by a formal meal with family and friends. This tradition is based on the folk belief that the soul enters the spirit world on the ninth day following death. It would take a year to take off the shroud of mourning and have the babang luksa.
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Death has never been an easy topic. It takes a certain courage to accept it as part of life, a journey one must take. But sometimes, when you look at Death in the eye, you’d find a new appreciation for Life.