Day of the Dead in the Land of the Living

We arrived late in the afternoon and sought refuge in the tent provided by the management. Our wet umbrellas were not kept aside. We used them to shield the flames of candles from the breeze which would come and go.

When the weather is good, there is a golden sky in the afternoon greeting people who march past houses in the bustling town center, towards the cemetery which is located on the quiet west side. The concrete road is not perfectly made, and dust freely flies up the air as the density of people thickens towards a bottleneck – the checkup point set up by local police making sure that nobody brings in liquor, weapons and any other prohibited items. It looks like a procession, and maybe it is some kind. Only, there is no statue of a saint leading the people, just a tradition to visit the dearly departed.

Every first of November, droves of families troop to the cemetery to be with departed loved ones. Visitors stay there for an entire day and sometimes longer, camping the night before and after November 1 to say their prayers, light candles and bring food. The observance of All Souls’ Day falls on the second, but I guess it is safe to say that majority makes the trip to the cemetery on the first. It has always been that way as far as I remember.

The Philippines is not the only country to have a day to remember the dead. Here, the All Saints’ day on the first and the All Souls’ Day on the second is collectively known as Undas. It is one of the many, many traditions imprinted in the country by the Roman Catholic influence. It is solemn and yet festive at the same time; not as vibrant as Dia de los Muertes but Undas is surely quite a spectacle too. Even the media devotes coverage of the days leading to November 1, providing updates on the situation in bus terminals, airports and ports. Truly, the travel industry prospers as people flock back to provinces to visit graves.

Understandably, media’s coverage of “supernatural” encounters also increase with TV stations exploring this angle as Undas approaches. Any child who grew up during the 90s would be very familiar with Magandang Gabi Bayan’s special episodes chronicling horrifying narratives of encounters with Black, White and even Red Lady, dwarves, the Kapres and Tikbalangs.


Images above screengrabbed from Rappler, Philstar and InterAksyon.

As a child, it was one of the moments where our clan would gather (aside from Christmas and of course, any untimely demise) and get to talk to each other. We would purchase candles in advance in order to avoid some sort of rush. These candles would not be lit all at the same time, but rather in some sort of order that will ensure we stay there until the evening. The grown-ups would chat endlessly while the young ones would hop from one tomb to the other and look at other people. Come nighttime, children with empty cans of paint roam, collecting the remains of melted candles.


There were none of the golden skies this year, however, as a tropical storm brought rains and forced visitors to bring umbrellas. Luckily, we have transferred the remains of my grandfather, grandmother two uncles and an aunt from the cemetery built by the local parish to a private and relatively new one right beside it. It was getting a little crowded and the room for the dead was shrinking. I figured, if we hadn’t transferred their remains, we could have dealt with mud.

Perhaps the weather has also somehow dampened the spirits of the living as the turnout was the lowest I’ve seen in years of going. Lesser adults showed up and perhaps cousins were busy, as some of them already had families of their own. Working in a multi-national financial firm for four years meant I could not really come home for most of the Philippine holidays. Leaving it for a non-government organization made sure I would be back in my hometown for these kinds of things (for two years in a row, I have been present for whatever occasion) in an attempt to relieve the same old feeling of the same old traditions, only to experience the changed environment over the years.

It was already dark when we stood up and decided to finally pack up. This time, the umbrellas were folded as the rain has stopped. There was no need to protect the flames of the remaining candles which will burn out in a few.

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One response to “Day of the Dead in the Land of the Living

  1. Pingback: That Time When… (2017 in Travels) | Wandertle·

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