Some All Saints’ Day Thoughts on Death

What man shall live and not see death ?

— Proverbs 89:49

Today is All Saints’ Day, a Catholic feast day or solemnity, intended to honor the saints or martyrs of the faith. It is celebrated every 1st of November and is an official public holiday in the Philippines, a country that prides itself in being the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, whatever that means. It possibly implies that we as have one leg up on salvation compared to our neighbors. But this is a highly debatable point and I digress.

However, All Saints’ Day in the Philippines is not for celebrating and emulating the saints of the Church but rather for honoring our departed loved ones, friends and family, and is an occasion for family reunions and, at times rather inappropriately, unruly revelry. We have it confused with All Souls’ Day, November 2, which is the day set for prayers and remembering our faithful departed. It doesn’t matter. Any excuse for a holiday is as good as any in this country. This year, we look forward to a 4-day weekend as Friday, November 2,ordinarily a working day, has been declared a special holiday.

As I heard it expressed more than once, it’s a sort of a family roll call before the enforced gaiety of the Christmas season. In some families, those who don’t show up had better have a good excuse or they won’t get any gifts in the coming holidays.

The eve of All Saints’ Day being Halloween, an American tradition increasingly gaining ground in the Philippines, specially in the more affluent communities of the urban areas, some have started carousing the night before. In fact, Halloween or not, those honoring their dead often spent the night before November 1 in the cemetery, eating, drinking, gambling, singing and sometimes fighting. Violently enough to add to the permanent population of the cemetery. Thus, in recent years, alcoholic beverages, weapons and karaoke and videoke machines have been banned from the premises. Cops and bomb-sniffing dogs are all around the place, what with the threat of terrorism of the non-Halloween kind. All Saints’ Day has therefore been recently characterized by more solemnity than I had been used to.

On this day every year, at least (not counting Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), Filipino Catholics are forced to confront their own mortality. And what do they do ? They make it a fiesta and grab the chance to catch up on gossip.

I don’t know whether this is good or bad; whether its a form of denial or it’s a healthy way of relating to death, as just another part of life. I suspect it’s the latter. With recent events being what they are, death has been very much at the foreground of most Pinoys’ minds, whether here or abroad. You go to the mall, even an upscale one, and you get blasted to bits by a clogged septic tank and/or faulty design, construction and maintenance. With malls like the ones run by the Ayala corporations, who needs Al-Qaeda, Jamaya Islamiya or the Abu Sayyaf Group ? One votes at the recent barangay elections and may be beaten up or shot in the process. Death, specially the sudden kind, is really part of the Filipino experience.

“Hora incerta, Mors Certa.”

— Hour Uncertain, Death Certain.

In this regard, we may be far more advanced than our Western counterparts, where death is still considered the last taboo. In a vapid, youth and pleasure-obsessed society such as that populated by the likes of, for example, Paris Hilton (or better yet, Perez Hilton), death is ignored, denied or given short-shift, as an incidental aspect of Halloween equated with zombies. Except perhaps for Oprah or Dr. Phil (maybe even Tyra Banks, who has the added advantage of being eye candy) although I wouldn’t know, not having had a chance to catch up on these shows lately. In the U.S., death is a sitcom, like Six Feet Under (which admittedly had wit and its wickedly funny moments).

Thus, academicians and life thinkers bewail the lack of much interest in the West in assessing the meaning of death. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Attitudes toward death and dying are evolving toward a more healthy outlook characterized by acceptance and positive personal growth. The obvious, but even more inconvenient truth about death, was expressed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross as follows:

“But the fact is that death is inevitable. We will all die; it is only a matter of time. Death is as much a part of human existence, of human growth and development, as being born. It is one of the few things in life we can count on, that we can be assured will occur. Death is not an enemy to be conquered or a prison to be escaped. It is an integral part of our lives that gives meaning to human existence. It sets a limit on our time in this life, urging us on to do something productive with that time as long as it is ours to use.”

In other words, death comes with the territory. So why not be familiar with it ? Not to the point of morbid fascination or obsession but rather, in the concept of Carlos Castaneda’s (speaking as Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian shaman), “wise adviser” and companion in the journey of life. As Don Juan said in Journey to Ixtlan:

“Death is our eternal companion. It is always to our left, at an arm’s length. Xxx It whispered in your ear and you felt its chill, as you felt it today. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.”

“The thing to do when you’re impatient, is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you.”

“Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel, like you always do, that everything is going wrong and you are about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you ‘I haven’t touched you yet’ “.

Castaneda had a tendency to over-romanticize and dramatize his points (no surprise his books became bestsellers). But you get the idea.

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