Every November 1st, while the rest of the world is recovering from their candyrush-driven costume parties, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Filipinos host a party of their own in the most peculiar of places – the cemetery.
November 1st is “All Souls Day,” a day to come together with your family and party like you’ve been dead since 1999. Basically, it’s an all-day picnic hosted by your departed relatives at the place of their burial.
The cemetery was dolled up like it was the site of a county fair. Colorful tents and umbrellas of all different shapes and sizes (which were preserved) were set up along the gravesites as far as the eye could see. Droves of people were mulling around, walking towards gravesites, setting up their food under the tents. It was the first time I had ever seen a cemetery in which the living outnumbered the dead.
A Filipino fiesta is not complete without lots of food (even if said fiesta happens to be set in a graveyard) so each party situated under their tent set up venerable feasts. Just in case you forgot to pack enough food, vendors were walking around, selling ice cream, taho, and other treats. My tita’s mom provided our feast, complete with scrumptous delights like chicken, lumpia, calamari, mechado (a personal favorite), Filipino spaghetti (which is sweeter than the standard counterpart), and leche flan. We ate. Then we ate some more. Pause, repeat.
All Souls Day is no short affair. Most families, including mine, stayed several hours until it was dark. The graveyard in the dark was not creepy or scary, but beautiful, brightened physically by the scores of candles lit at the gravesides of the beloved, and emotionally by the simple pleasure of spending a pleasant afternoon with loved ones.
Partying in a cemetery may seem strange, even perverse, to Western sensibilities, but it now makes sense to me. If you think about it, the usual cemetery visit is such sad business. You come to the grave, head bowed, place some flowers, stay a few minutes (usually in silence), then trudge back to the car.
On All Souls Day, you also place flowers, candles, and other things you know your loved one was fond of, like food, cigarettes, etc. But while a normal cemetery visit is full of melancholy introspection, All Souls Day is a celebration of the lives you shared with those lying before you. There is no eulogizing, no tears. The dead are not put on a pedestal, to be merely remembered. For one afternoon, it is as if the dead are with us again. Stories of old are told, past memories are recalled, and yet new memories are made – those of laughter, dance, conversation, food – in a place where the souls of our departed family may partake in the joy. I guess it makes sense that in a religious place like the Philippines there would be a holiday on which the dead, living through the memories of their family, create new memories to be reminisced upon with them when they join them in the ether.
To Lola, Great Lola, Lolo, Lolo Boy, Lolo Lito, Tito Jay, and all my other departed family members – I hope you enjoyed today as I did. See you next November 1.