Burial and nationhood (Manila Times Walking History)

by xiaochua

October 27, 2018


ON Thursday, November 1, we will be commemorating our loved ones who have passed on to the next life in the feast of Todos los Santos, All Saints’ Day. Actually, the feast for All Souls would still be November 2 but most of us consider our dead relatives as saints anyway, that’s why we go to our cemeteries on November 1.

Since November 1 is All Saints’ Day, then the night before that used to be called “All Hallows’ Evening” in Western countries; the word “hallow” means a holy man or a saint, thus “hallowed be thy name.” It is now called Halloween. Ancient Celtics called this the “Samhain” feast where they believed that the souls of their dead loved one shall return. They celebrated this by knocking on doors of other houses dressed as the soul of the dead, and should one not give anything to them, they will play a prank on the household, thus “trick or treat.”

But we have a native-sounding name for our feast for the dead, “Undas.” According to Dr. Lars Raymund Ubaldo of the DLSU History Department, who studied death practices in Ilocos, the word actually comes from the Spanish “honras funebres” (funeral honors). In some Tagalog provinces, undas is called “honras” and “undras,” and in Ilocos, the “atang” is also called “umras.”

A thousand years from now, when all of us are gone, the people from the future will find our graves and, just by reading our tombstones, or looking at the things that are found with our remains, they will know the life we lived. This is the work of archaeology, as Irene Carolina Sarmiento simply implied in her children’s book Tabon Girl (Batang Tabon). It is digging through the trash that our ancestors left to know how they lived.

But many of the histories we have read before had emphasized our seeming lack of culture and civilization before colonialism came. One such book was the popular 1964 textbook A Short History of the Far East by Kenneth Scott Latourette which stated that: “Before the coming of the Spaniards, as we have hinted, the Philippines were backward in civilization as compared with most of the rest of the Far East…. The Filipinos were still but partly removed from the primitive stages of culture.” (Emphasis mine.)

That’s why the work of archaeologists such as Dr. Grace Barretto-Tesoro is important. For her dissertation in Cambridge, she studied the graves of our ancestors in Calatagan, Batangas and the items that went with our ancestors to their graves tell us of their rich and elaborate culture: tridacna gigas shells, gold and other ornaments, and even skulls of what are believed as slaves. One of those found was even believed to be an ancient priestess, a catalonan, as babaylanes were called in Luzon.

But the way we bury can also tell us that despite the fact that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multilingual nation that doesn’t seem to have anything in common, there are actually patterns of culture that bring us back to our common heritage, which is the heritage of our Austronesian pioneers.

Take for example, the Manunggul Jar that was found in 1962 in Lipuun Point, Quezon, Palawan and was dated from 890-710 B.C, one of the national treasures of our nation displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology. I was a student of Dr. Bernadette Abrera at UP, and she taught us the belief of our ancestors that when one dies, the soul enters the afterlife in a boat and this is reflected in the design of the cover of that particular burial jar: two souls on a boat. Abrera also made us notice that the boat in the jar actually has a face; our ancestors believed that even things such as boats have souls, because things from nature is where our “anitos” can dwell. This made them respect nature as the home of the spirit of their ancestors.

Another archaeologist, my batchmate Joan Tara Reyes-Hernandez, studied the “sunduk” grave markers in Sulu that date back hundreds of years ago. Samples of these in the National Museum show us designs that look like a person on a boat similar to the imagery found in Manunggul. Also, in Kabayan, Benguet; Sagada, Mountain Province; and even in Romblon, coffins had boat-shaped designs. In Batanes, grave markers were also shaped like boats. I always wondered if “bangkay” has something to do with “bangka.”

Found in many places around the Philippines, they all point to a very important aspect of common Filipino identity that we should always emphasize: our rich maritime culture.

So, our graveyards are not only rich sources of history, but a reminder that we can be culturally united as a people.