All Soul’s Day, undas in Filipino and kalag-kalag in Cebuano is at hand and what better way to be in the mood than a four-part series about cemeteries and the age old practice of Filipinos to honor their dead. Part 1 Part 2 Part3 Part 4.
While some are making last minute travel back to their home province (or probably vacationing at the beach), the first day of November sees cemeteries across the country already abuzz with visitors. In Cebu City, the Calamba Cemetery is one of the biggest in the province and also an opportunity to soak in this time honored tradition.
At the entrance, ambulant vendors are already calling out customers to buy their wares of overpriced candles, flowers, bottles of mineral water or, if you have your own car, bugging you to take their parking space before another will get it. These can be convenient, however for some especially those who haven’t been to the flower markets.
More vendors, this time stalls, line at the sides of the colonial era entrance arch with its creepy skull and crossbones medallion relief overhead. People are now streaming in in big numbers, and as the day progress, it can be a very humid and chaotic beeline at both directions. Once inside, you get to glimpse the Spanish colonial period cemetery chapel built in 1863 with its stylized relief of a crowned skeleton holding a staff and an hourglass.
As you pass the narrow path straight, your eyes start to sting as smoke intentionally lit by boys fill the air. These are done by what I call the palina boys, enterprising youths who collect a peso for each individual who pass above these. In Cebuano cemetery tradition, passing over smoke as one goes out of the cemetery ensures that the spirits would not follow you to your homes where they might bring sickness or even death to a loved one. In 2006, cemetery administrators banned this practice inside.
As one wanders around the cemetery, one can’t help but notice last minute retouches done on the tombs and niches. Men on ladders are busy sprucing up the upper levels, putting on a fresh coat of paint or installing a temporary electric bulb connection for the night. Below, families or individuals are silently mumbling their prayers, lighting candles and offering flowers and at the same time, admonishing teenage boys against stealing still lighted candles left by the visitor that they will gather for its wax.
One find that amazed me was this family who offered food and water to their departed. It’s already rare for this kind of thing to be seen and here it is, at one part of the cemetery. This is a traditional practice of honoring the dead and are more common in the rural areas. One requirement for this is that the food should be cooked unsalted. In some instances, a ritual offering of betel nut and areca with lime, duhat rolled leaves and strips of tobacco are put on a platter for the spirit to “taste”.
At one central part in Calamba Cemetry is a huge cross where visitors can offer their prayers, flowers and candles. Really, it’s more economical and convenient for them than to visit the maze of niches, tombs and plots that, over time, they have forgotten where their dead friends or distant kin have been entombed.