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Undas, the Day of the Dead

By Ronald de Jong
South Cotabato
October 29, 2016


The people in the Philippines greatly value their religious rites; one of the most beloved and enduring tradition is called Undas or Undras, the nation’s celebration of the all Saints Day, a unique, centuries-old Catholic religious ritual, introduced by early Spanish friars, where the deceased relatives are remembered and honoured.

This day, also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas (Hallows means saint) is declared a public holiday and the whole nation has a mandatory two day vacation.  All Saints' Day, which falls on the first day of November, is a day to commemorate the saints or people who have obtained perfect salvation in heaven. All Souls' Day, just one day later, is meant to pay tribute to the faithful departed who are still in purgatory, a suitable time to ponder the mystery of death and to renew the faith in the promise of eternal life. 

Filipinos show and share a common belief in the afterlife and strongly rely on the spiritual bond between those who have not yet been purified, those who are in heaven and the living. These two days do have a special significance, entire families, flock to the public or private cemeteries to offer prayers, food, drinks and flowers to their relatives and friends who are no more, as a sign of love and devotion. It is a long-standing practice to bury the ancestors together in the same tomb, so as a rule this occasion is treated as a reunion for the next of kin or friends to bond with each other and to wind down, making it a great opportunity to be with the ones who passed away.

Several days in advance gravestones are repaired, painted and it surroundings cleaned of garbage, grasses and weed that has grown for up to year. When time is short there are plenty of enterprising children trying to make one man's trash to their treasure, eager to do the job for an average of 150-200 pesos per shrine.  Sometimes a whole day is spent with sweeping, scrubbing and polishing before the burial place is ready for the fest,  After the clean-up kith and kin will set up tents, shelters, chairs, tables, canopies and barbeques in front of the grave sites that are often decorated with brightly coloured ornaments, wreaths, garlands and balloons.

Usually a photograph and other memorabilia of the late relative are placed on a prominent location at their final resting place, in this way the old days, funny events and anecdotes will be talked about, the good and bad characteristics of those laid to rest are shared with the younger offspring and remembered, hopefully lifting some of the burden of losing a loved one. For most attendants their forbearers are still considered as a part of the family, it is a rewarding and comfortable thought that they are able to look blissfully at all the descendants gathering in camaraderie and harmony.

This annual event always starts in the early hours of the morning with the preparation of the traditional dishes; the treats are packed and brought to the cemetery as soon as possible, space is in short supply at nearly all burial grounds and nobody wants to arrive at their family plot discovering that there is no empty ground left to stay. The almost festive ceremony the "Araw ng mga Patay" (Day of the Dead), will last until the next day, when it is the All Souls Day, numerous devotees will be present in the cemeteries and sometimes stay overnight, close to their buried family members, reciting the Rosary and the Litany, so that those who are resting in peace will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. All Saints Day is the mother of all festivals: it is a celebration of all Christian Saints, and a very special day for the parents to remember their children who perished early in their innocent lives. This ceremony can go on late into the night and the following day with prayer, laughter and loads of delicious food, especially the favourite meal of the solemnized person is being served. Many people prefer a proper attitude and a sober remembrance, for them it is a holy day of obligation and a time for reflection and togetherness.

Others however are transforming the normally quiet city of the dead into a boisterous fairground with a picnic park and participants are turned into party animals, they are creating an event that has become one of secular merriment. During the wake kid's play hide and seek on the funerary grounds, while adults play card games and "mah-jong". Gambling, drinking sessions and the use of illegal drugs, at times resulting in scanty skirmishes, are not uncommon. Turned up music can be heard from big and small, competing sound systems, karaoke is sung and dances are performed to ward off bad and unwanted spirits. Around midnight, children will pick the flowers left on the graves. The jaunty youngsters will imitate those who are already pushing up daisies and one of them is chosen to play the corpse that will be surrounded by the stolen blossoms. When the night is over and the clock strikes eight the candles are lit, it is said that this is the time of the day that the souls return to heaven to join their Maker.

Undas, sometimes referred to as Todos los Santos, is a time when folklore mixes with superstition and superstition blends with religion, it is commemorated in many different ways, Pangangaluluwa is a tradition practiced in the remote areas and provinces, vocal groups representing those who have gone ahead of us will go around town on the night of the All Saints Day singing and asking for alms and prayers from the community. Teenagers are carolling mainly after midnight to ensure that the people being serenaded are sleeping; if the singers do not receive some money, a few chickens and eggs will be poached form the premises.

The Magdadasal or prayer brigade, mostly two elderly women, will go from house to house for nine consecutive days, for a few pesos they will recite special prayers for the eternal repose of the souls of those who have left for their heavenly abode. People who are unable to go to oratories, chapels and churches, who cannot afford to travel great distances or whose families are too far away, will light some candles in front of their doorstep to welcome those who are no longer alive and will visit the homes they once shared with the family they left behind. Additionally Undas has finally gone viral, it has conquered its own place in Cyber Space; Filipinos living and working abroad, seafarers and those who cannot make the journey to their parishes can now make virtual requests for masses, prayers and make donations through undasonline, an internet portal providing information, videos, recitations, papal messages and liturgical notes. The site is also aiming to make the younger generation more aware about the essence of All Saints' and All Souls' Day and is warning against the idea of glorifying evil. Traditionally, these occasions are not celebrated like Halloween with pumpkins, scary costumes or trick-or-treat. Nonetheless, nowadays the honouring of the dead is a lucrative business for local entrepreneurs; Halloween costumes; creepy masks and other weird accessories are well sold items.

A lot of participants, mostly children are attending activities that tend to highlight death, evil, ghosts, magic and monsters. In like manner this phenomenon has become a media spectacle that is coloured by pomp and pageantry, every major television station will be present to cover this event, day and night live reports and documentaries can be seen on small and big screens at home and various outlets, the news journals are giving account about supernatural incidents and paranormal apparitions that are supposed to be encountered all around the country. Various networks are broadcasting horror shows and special programs themed around ghosts and hauntings, along with the unavoidable commercial breaks. 

Still, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children do not stay at home, the commemoration is causing a mass exodus of people and vehicles; record numbers of travellers will swarm simultaneously into highways, airports, bus terminals, train stations and ship ports hurrying home to their families in the provinces, gathering for the festivities and the mandatory trip to the cemetery. In metropolitan areas several streets are closed and special transport routes are organized to ease traffic jams, it seems that on these days all roads are leading to God's acres.

The daily routine has come to a complete stand still, the Philippine Government will go in recess, nationwide schools are closed, supermarkets, shopping malls, department stores are anticipating for last minute buying and are displaying bizarre decorations of hanging skeletons, floating white ladies, goggling ghouls, spine-chilling goblins, wicked witches on broomsticks, glowing jack-o-lanterns and other creepy creatures on cobwebbed ceilings and dark-coloured walls. National and local authorities gear up a few days before the upcoming festivities, over all security is tightened; law enforcement agencies and the armed forces will be on high alert to ensure the public hassle free days. Squatters that are living in makeshift cardboard houses and stone tombs in public burial sites  are driven out, sidewalks and streets are filling with vendors, grabbing their alternate chance to sell flowers, loose petals, candles of all colours, shapes and scents, lanterns, bottled water, cigarettes, balut, toys and cell phones for jacked up prices.

Makeshift stalls and eateries are sprouting along memorial parks and near the entrances to sell pizza, hotdogs, ice cream, toasted corn nuts, crunchy salted snacks and traditional sweet goodies. Well-known fast food chain like Jollibee, Greenwich McDonalds, Dunkin' Donuts and Chow king are setting up small, mobile outlets for those who want a quick bite. Despite the fact that everybody is equal in the eyes of their Creator, even in these eternal homes the separation between the rich and the poor still prevails. The more wealthy clans are holding their lavishly parties at the well maintained family shrines; it is no exception anymore that exclusive catering services are hired and that a complete roasted pig and complementary classical dishes are delivered and eaten at the crowded site. The Undas season is a very popular happening and attracts all kind of people, including contemptible individuals that will show no respect whatsoever for the dead and prey on the living, bogus priests are roaming the cemeteries to conduct fake blessing rituals in return for cash. In residential areas burglary incidents are on the rise and snatchers and petty thieves are shifting their working area from the streets and backyards to churches and bone yards.

When the observance has come to an end most consecrated sites will have the appearance of a dumpsite, in fact, graveyards are changed into junkyards, the marble towns and adjoining streets are littered with food wrappers, left over's, cigarette butts, containers, empty bottles, plastic bags and other discards. The clean up by city employees and volunteers will take a couple of days, by this time the price of candles and flowers have rolled back, the balloons have shrunk and the candles are blown out, most Filipinos have returned to their homestead and picked up their daily chorus. Eventually pedestrians, cyclists and other traffic will later on take over the encircling streets.

The squatters that were kicked out will once more seek shelter in the burial chambers and columbaries, empty or occupied, not fearing the “wrath” of the dead; instead they are more afraid of the humans who are still breathing. They know they will be evicted again when regular and first time visitors will find their way to the cemeteries. Till then they make and call the necropolis their home, these settlers inherited the mausoleums from their predecessors or stay with or without permission from the owners. Once in a while they can find work as caretaker and gravestone mason, their children play on the burial grounds and carry coffins, collect scrap metal, plastic and other materials to earn some pocket money.

Although Filipinos observe and honour their kindred dead with affection and respect, this tradition, no matter how and where it is performed, is and will remain a convivial occasion for family and friends. Undas is both for the death and the living; it is not only a yearly visit to those relatives who died but a celebration of life as well.

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