Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Caring for the dead

Caring for the dead

Updated 01:49am (Mla time) Nov 17, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 17, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WHEN you ask a person to define "prehistoric," he or she will most likely make reference to dinosaurs and Neanderthals. While this is not entirely wrong, pre-history actually refers to the period before writing or written records.

Although Filipinos were said to be literate and to have a system of writing before the arrival of Magellan in 1521, little has survived to remind us of our long and complex pre-Spanish past. Until we discover a cache of pre-colonial documents by Filipinos and about Filipinos, we don't have much to go on other than 16th-century Spanish accounts of the Philippines and hypotheses of scholars studying the numerous archaeological sites dug up all over the country over the past century.

The earliest images we have of Filipinos come in a series of splendid illustrations from an anonymous 16th-century manuscript, popularly known as the "Boxer Codex" after the late historian of Asia, C.R. Boxer, who deposited this treasure in the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana at Bloomington. Ten years ago, I was invited to Professor Boxer's home outside London for lunch and a chance to see his famous library. All I wanted was to hold the Codex and go through the illustrations.

I was not disappointed. The illustrations were as vibrant as on the day they were painted, obviously for a high-ranking official in Spanish Philippines-the governor-general or perhaps the archbishop of Manila. Each drawing showing the costumes and physical traits of various peoples from Luzon and the Visayas was trimmed with gold, with borders of foliage and animals in the same manner that medieval monks "illuminated" their manuscripts. One of my regrets is that I did not have a camera with me.

After going through the Codex, the professor asked if I read Japanese. Although I answered in the negative, he still brought out books, including one with woodcut illustrations of early Filipinos. Again I regret not coming prepared with a camera. Worse, I did not even write down the title so I could go back to this book again.

Pictures may indeed be worth a thousand words, but for a historian, sometimes text is more desirable. My research area covers the late 19th century when photographs could already be taken, enabling us to visualize what our heroes looked like. But all this can never compare with a detailed letter or a journal brimming with personal revelations.

One of the things that Spanish chroniclers (usually friars) mentioned in their accounts of Filipino life as they understood it at the time was the care that was showered on the dead. November being the month when Catholics remember their "dear departed," I decided to go over burial practices of early Filipinos to see if we have changed much in the past four centuries. The main sources of information can be found in the 55-volume "The Philippine Islands" compiled by Emma Helen Blair and James Robertson. Just look in the index under the surnames: Plasencia, Loarca, Morga and Colin.

Both in life and death, there is a distinction between the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled, the famous and the anonymous. Elaborate ceremonies were held for VIPs; even the quality of their coffins and the place of burial were better of course than those of "ordinary" mortals. For example, the poor were placed in graves under the house, VIPs in wooden coffins. Some were placed in the jars imported from China, Thailand or Vietnam -- with again the more expensive and more beautiful ones reserved for the upper class. While modern-day funeral parlors have coffins for every taste and budget, what still determines the type of wake and funeral is basically the ability to pay.

What caught my attention was the belief that there was a particular type of “aswang” [local ghoul] that liked to feast on cadavers, hence people had to stay awake at night and the wake was well-lighted and noisy. When you think of the modern-day “lamay” [funereal wake], we think this is part of tradition not realizing that it goes a long, long way and has its roots in protecting the cadavers of our loved ones from the “aswang.”

In some wakes today, photographs of the deceased are displayed on top of the coffin. Sometimes some favorite possession is also on display. Colin mentions that beside the dead was a "box filled with the best clothing of the deceased and at suitable times various kinds of food were placed on dishes for them. Beside the man were placed the weapon, and beside the women their looms or other instruments of labor."

Today food is basically served to the living. During the wake for my mother, three meals a day were served, plus snacks. It also helps that by tradition, one should not take home anything from a wake so food and flowers last till burial time.

Today we have modern embalming techniques. In those days, corpses were rubbed with herbs and various concoctions. Mummies in the Cordilleras are a marvel in preservation.

During the burial time, we throw flowers as "pabaon" [going-away presents] for the dead. In pre-colonial times, it could be food, money, or even a live slave. Plasencia in 1589 mentions a living slave being tied beneath the body of a warrior and left to die so he could serve the master in the afterlife.

I thought reading about pre-colonial practices would show how different we are today, but one sees a lot of similarities. We have not changed much in the past 500 years.


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