By Jean Claire A. Dy
*published in www.mindanews.com on november 1, 2004
Filipinos from different walks of life troop to the cemeteries on All Saints and All Souls Day. But more than just places where families converge to remember those who departed, cemeteries are as much reminders of differences—economic and cultural—in death as in life.
Even one quick tour around Davao City’s cemeteries on the eve of All Saints Day revealed these stark realities to a first time
Davao cemetery visitor like me. Almost all the cemeteries that night was already buzzing with activity as people prepare for the next day’s activity. In the dark, candles lit the faces of people gathered around grave markers neatly arranged in rows on the grassy expanse of
San Pedro Memorial Park. This solemn sight is marred by the R&B music blaring in the background that mixes with the syncopated laughter of teenagers roaming the cemetery. If not for the presence of tombstones, one would perhaps make the mistake that there’s a rave party going on. A few meters away from the entrance of the cemetery, youngsters vending curio items lined the cemented pathway. One group sold necklaces with luminous twinkling plastic pendants that come in different shapes and colors.
“We have all kinds from crosses, crescent moons, hearts. Ma’am, you can choose,” the guy tending the products said in his most businesslike voice. On holidays like All Saints Day, these necklaces, called “mini lights” cost thirty pesos. But on ordinary days, one can actually buy them for as low as ten to twenty pesos a piece in the side streets of Illustre. Nearby, young girls sitting on the pavement constantly call out to passersby in the hope of even selling a few glow-in-the-dark bracelets costing five pesos each. “You can wear it wherever you want Ma’am, around your neck or on you wrists,” chirped the girl who was sporting a bunch of yellow neon bracelets and a multicolored necklace. “Fashion statement ni ma’am,” she joked.
In the dark, the girls looked like characters from some sci-fi movie: moving shadows adorned with neon bracelets and necklaces in yellows, greens and purples. A walk up the stairs to the West took me to what a friend dubbed the “great divide” symbolized by a wall marking the boundary that separates San Pedro Memorial Park and Wireless Cemetery. Looking over the wall, I could see the “great difference.” In contrast to San Pedro Memorial’s generic American cemetery influenced landscaping, the Wireless Cemetery evoked a rather gothic appeal. From a distance, it looked more like one of Dali’s surrealist monochromatic landscapes complete with beautifully haunting images. Against the backdrop of gray clouds, the piles of tombstones looked like vestiges of a doomed city. Frida Kahlo would probably have thought the Wireless Cemetery a great subject to paint if she had the chance to see it at its present state. It can be a good background for a social commentary. At least that’s what I thought when I found myself standing inside this city’s oldest cemetery. That night, the cemetery was relatively silent and empty. There were no candles, no flowers arranged neatly on tombstones, no families setting up tents to watch over their loved ones’ graves. It is only near midnight when one can spot a mother and daughter busy washing a grave (perhaps for a living), while a jeepney full of muscular able-bodied boys arrived carrying pails.
Ciudad de los muertos or city of the dead. This is what a friend calls old Roman Catholic public cemeteries in the Philippines, which he considers an apt title, that recognizes our colonizers’ far reaching influence in our way of life. The Wireless Cemetery is no exception. Like all public cemeteries around the country, it is a cramped city of tombstones piled on top of one another like makeshift tenements found in squatter areas. Traces of its old glory still remain with a few Baroque inspired mausoleums. Names of the dead dating as far back as in the 1940s etched on graves are as faded as the past. One could imagine how the next day, families would crowd in their own narrow space of a grave, while others would be desperately searching for their loved ones’ lost graves, a price they have to pay for a cheap burying ground.
In public cemeteries like this, All Saints Day is not about expensive candle-holders or the most artsy flower arrangement you could bring. It is about communal gathering and celebration even if it means drinking the night away with tanduay and a pack of cards. Spaces in public cemeteries are important too despite it being oftentimes crowded. There’s always an unwritten rule in defining your boundaries: you have to make sure you keep your belongings (even your trash) to where they belong–your own space however narrow it is.
Defining spaces and territories is what the people in Davao Memorial Park in Matina seemed to be preoccupied with that night. Tents in different shapes and sizes were all over the place. One grave was even lined with yellow tape that had “caution” written on it (which reminded me of police lines found in crime scenes). Another was designed like a flowerbed of yellow roses. In this cemetery one could find mausoleums in various architectural designs. One mausoleum was as big as a low-cost government housing unit while another looked like a smaller version of a French chalet.
As in most private cemeteries for the rich, the parking lot of Davao Memorial was almost packed with different cars that night. Outside, stalls of fastfood chains like Shakeys and Jollibee stood in a row. A public assistance center was situated somewhere near the entrance. Ironically, I couldn’t find a trash can anywhere. Garbage was dumped under a few lamp posts, while some were found on the pavements and even on the grassy lawns near graves decorated by intricate candleholders and flower arrangements.
The Davao Memorial Park looked more like an urban subdivision that night; like a metaphor of suburbia–where beneath all beautiful things lies urban decay. And I couldn’t help but wonder if new private cemeteries like the Orchard Road Memorial Park would end up like it: commercial, glitzy and very dirty.