Filipino Burial Practices and Customs
The Death Knocking on Our Door
My father died at the age of 82. It was tough few days for me, my siblings, and my relatives. He was seriously sick and his doctors had given up on him but he was a fighter. He fought for his life with his complicated illness for almost nine months. It was an up and down with his health. Seeing him was a struggle although he was sometimes in a good mood. Seeing his death coming, he planned his burial and organized his important documents in his attache case. He told me many things about what he would get from some social organisations and what I should do. He was prepared to die but had not prepared me for the coming pain and emptiness that he had left us behind.
I am writing this article as a tribute to my late father and as a way to cope with what I feel. I am writing this article because I know there are Filipino expats out there who, like me, have no idea what it is like to have death in the family. I want to share what I learned and experienced about our unique Filipino burial and funeral traditions.
The Funeral Parlor
Two men from St. Peter's funeral parlor came to our house with a stretcher. My lifeless father was lying on the bedsheets he had from his bed and was covered with them when he was transported to the van. He was prepared in the funeral parlor for the nine-day wake at home. He was returned home that afternoon, in a beautiful casket, but had to enter through the back door of our house. I was confused. I didn´t know why. His casket was placed in the decorated living room arranged by St. Peter's workers.
The Wake or Vigil
Traditionally, a wake is held in the house of the deceased person, usually for three days to a week, but it can last longer when a relative who is living very far or from abroad is expected to come for the burial ceremony. The casket is lighted well and both sides have funeral wreaths. On the top of the casket, which is covered with glass, is a framed photo of the deceased person. Everyone can see the dead and pay tribute to him or her. There is a stand with a guests book and a pot for "Abuloy" or financial donations near the casket. The wood cover of the casket, which is open the whole time, is filled with names of the siblings, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the deceased.
During this wake, a nightly prayer, or a 9-day novena, is started before 8 o´clock in the evening. It is said that evil tries to come to the deceased at 8 pm. So, the prayer usually starts at 7.30 in the evening and ends after 8. After the prayer, which is led by a "Mangunahay" (a Bisayan dialect term of a prayer leader), snacks are distributed to the participants and to some who stay awake for the whole night.
Family members, relatives, and friends take their turn not sleeping and to be near the casket. The casket should not be left alone. Games like playing cards is one way of staying awake. Outside the house, a tent with tables and chairs is put up. This is where friends, relatives, and neighbours hold vigil for the dead while playing cards, board games, and Majong. They play with money and this money will land later in the donation pot near the casket to be spent on snacks or other burial expences.
Do's and Don´ts
It was the first time that I was in a family funeral. Living from a young age as a Filipino expat in Germany left me ignorant of our Filipino funeral traditions and superstitious beliefs. I did not really believe some things, but I had to follow. And as my relatives said, "there is no harm in following." Better safe than sorry.
- We were not allowed to take a bath or comb our hair inside the house where the deceased rested in the casket. It was said that combing our hair can cause our own deaths, one after the other. There was no logical reason given to me, but hey, I followed and took a bath somewhere else and combed my hair while going to the market.
- We were not allowed to sweep the floor. It could cause bad luck. We were allowed to collect the trash though and wipe the floor with wet cloth. That was strange! Not sweeping, but wiping.
- We were not allowed to eat food with Moringa leaves. They said that eating this food could cause death in the family, one after the other. Pulling the Moringa leaves means pulling a person to his grave. Vegetables that climbed like squash were not allowed to be eaten either.
- Red clothes were not allowed for the adults, but were for the kids, as the red color would protect the kids from seeing the ghost of the dead.
- Candles should stay lit at the altar 24 hours a day until the 40th day after the death. The 40th day was said to be the last day the spirit of the deceased wanders on earth. This is connected to the Roman Catholic belief in the ascencion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- We were not allowed to bring home food served from the wake. It was said that the dead would not like it and would follow you home.
- We were not allowed to say "thank you" to the visitors who had given "Abuloy" or financial support, flowers, or prayers. It was said that saying thank you would mean that you are happy to have dead in your home.
- We were not allowed to accompany the visitors at the door or the gate of our home when we had the wake. Visitors should just go without saying anything.
- The house and the gate was wide open 24 hours a day when there was a wake. It was frightening for me as burglars could go inside the house.
- The deceased should carry a broken rosary in his hands. It was said that a broken rosary could break any curse and could prevent family members from following the dead.
- The deceased should not wear shoes but can have his/her shoes in the casket near their feet. It was said that the spirit of the dead could still be in the house and not wearing the shoes can hinder us from hearing the footsteps.
- A metal "bolo" or knife was put in the casket beside the deceased to break any curse.
- Abuloy, aka financial contributions for the deceased, should not be used for anything but the expenses of the burials and other expenses, like paying the leader of the prayer who comes everyday until the 40th day.
- Leftover food that was carried to the cemetery and distributed to the mourners who accompanied to the grave should not be brought home. We ended up giving food to the passersby at the cemetery.
- We had to walk over an open fire in the cemetery before going back home after the burial. There was already a basin of water filled with guava leaves. We had to clean our hands in that basin before going up to the house. The cleaning of the hands was to get rid of the negative spirits coming with us from the cemetery.
Which of the Dos and Don'ts you didn't like?
Covering the Mirrors
I am sure there are still many things that can be added to these Filipino burial and funeral customs and traditions, as every ethnic groups or province in the Philippines has its own beliefs.
I read when I did my research here in Germany that ln most provinces people cover their mirrors with white cloth when there is death in the family. They said that covering the mirrors protects one from seeing the face of the deceased when you happen to look at your face in the mirror. I didn´t know that when I was still at home and the casket of my father was still there. While I was not allowed to take a bath and comb my hair inside the house, I was allowed to wash my face. Every time I washed my face, I looked up at the mirror and I only saw my own face, nobody else. Nobody told me to cover the mirrors in the house and so I was not aware of this belief.
There are so many things to write about on this topic, but I hope what I have written will help families cope up with the stress that a wake and vigil can bring.
The video below can help you understand visually our funeral customs and traditions.
Thanks for reading and God bless you.