When the pandemic hit in 2020, the government, out of precaution, ordered that those who died of the coronavirus should have no wakes, which was a very difficult protocol for Filipinos to comply with, as the bereaved were deprived of one ritual of grief and closure.
Some wakes and memorial services were held online. Although many found it a poor substitute for the actual thing, it was still a way to come together and honor the departed.
With this in mind, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) set up a memorial website to commemorate Filipino artists, cultural workers, icons of arts and culture, and media personalities who lost their lives during the pandemic.
Called ‘Hanggang sa Muli: Pagpupugay at Pasasalamat sa mga Pumanaw,’ (HSM) the website was launched on Araw ng Kagitingan (April 9) last year.
According to Beverly Wico Sy, head of the CCP’s Intertextual Department that spearheaded the project, HSM “is a virtual space where families, friends, and the public can pay their respects” to departed artists, many of whom died of COVID-19 and could not be honored with a wake.
The website serves to bring solace and comfort, and to remind Filipinos of the contributions of artists and other cultural workers to the nation.
Many artists who died from 2020 to 2022 were also responsible for shaping culture and the arts, ensuring the representation of formerly invisible sectors, and setting the direction for the future.
Although the website no longer accepts new entries, it will be maintained. Wico Sy said the website also serves to educate the younger generation, and provide inspiration from lives well-lived.
Featured on HSM are people from all walks of life in movies, music, theater, literature, media, and the other arts — National Artist of the Philippines for Theater, playwright Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio; stage actor Celia Diaz Laurel, film director Leo Abaya, guitarist Noli Aurillo, and theater director Baby Barredo among them.
Each entry is accompanied by an obituary – lengthy for some, short for others, but all imbued with love and respect for the departed.
Wico Sy said the CCP invites everyone to visit the website (https://hanggangsamuli.culturalcenter.gov.ph/) to learn more about the achievements of Filipinos who worked in the fields of the arts, culture, and media.
I was among those who worked on the HSM website as an editor of the obituaries that were posted with each entry. The obits were written by loved ones or by writers who interviewed and researched the life of the departed.
I thought it would be easy work, but I was very wrong.
Reading all about the lives and loves of Filipinos who gave their all for their art or their craft was enlightening but also very heavy; as time wore on and the obits for editing piled up in my laptop, I felt a great weight pressing on my heart.
The constant reminders of mortality were too oppressive.
I felt deep sorrow at the passing of so many due to the pandemic.
Many who died were otherwise healthy, if not for the COVID taking them away. Many promising careers were cut short by the virus, and it was heart-rending to think of what might have been.
From time to time, I and the HSM team would rest from the labor, to allow ourselves time to recuperate.
I can assure you that each obit on the HSM website has a little bit of our hearts and souls embedded in it.
We wrote, edited, and uploaded them with much respect and love, as well as admiration for all the achievements of the bright, hardworking, and talented Filipinos who left us during the pandemic.
Among the lessons we learned about creating and running a memorial website is that because there are no space constraints online, space for the obits should not be stinted.
At first we kept ourselves to a 400-word limit so as not to overload storage capacity on the website.
But 400 words are often not enough to describe a person’s life and list their achievements and the tributes people paid them.
We then accommodated pieces of any length; if one seemed too short, I researched and added more details during the editing process.
Also, because obits remind us of a person’s death, it is important to flesh out the details of their lives fully, to make them come alive in the reader’s mind, and thus allow them to live again, even for a moment.
I believe that a person is never really dead while at least one individual remembers that person.
So HSM is not only a memorial to the departed, it is a repository of information, and a way of immortalizing those within its pages.
Do visit the website if you can, and say a little prayer for those who were a part of the country’s artistic life and the nation’s zeitgeist.
* * * Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO