Public Deaths

Death is one of the most universal of taboos. Not the rituals of grief, burial and mourning which are many, varied and almost always public in character. I mean the actual act of dying. This most mysterious of earthly transitions is done in private, even for the most well-known of persons, with a few family and close friends in attendance and maybe a man or woman of God around to ease the way.

Public deaths, on the other hand, serve a social purpose. For instance, public executions are meant to be cathartic events in which society extracts its pound of flesh, as it were. It supposedly serves as a deterrent to criminal or aberrant behavior and reflects the manner by which justice is served within a community. It’s also morbidly entertaining and can even be interactive, such as in the practice of stoning or the spectators’ participation in the gory events in the Roman Colosseum.

Other public deaths, such as the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, serve as a catalyst for social upheaval and change.

Suicide is a more complicated phenomenon in which no easy generalizations can be made. It can be done privately or in plain of view others, but even the most secretive act of taking one’s life assumes a public aspect upon the discovery of the body. The act itself is shocking under any circumstance, being so contrary to what we normally know and expect of human behavior. Thus, the ripple effects of a suicide extend beyond the immediate family or social circle of the victim to the society at large. I knowingly use the word “victim” as I believe those who kill themselves are casualties of one or another of life’s events which makes continued living unbearable. However, some suicides are more publicly significant that others. Continue reading

Last Words of the Dying Christ

There are two (actually three, with John having Him say a matter-of-fact summation of his mission on earth: “It is Finished”) versions of what Jesus Christ said as he suffered and neared death on the cross at Golgotha. The first: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?

Mark and Matthew attribute this to the dying Christ. It has been interpreted through the centuries as a cry of utter despair and fading hope.

Luke, perhaps finding such words repugnant as it suggests a slide into black doubt, says that Christ’s words were actually: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” Modern believers are more comfortable with Luke’s version, as His dying words are more in keeping with common doctrinal teachings that God will look after us and never leave us.

For all we know, He may have uttered both, they are not incompatible. Continue reading


Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’re-fraught heart, and bids it break.

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth

I stumbled across a series of posts in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye, on how she has been coping with the death of her mother. It’s one of the most honest, poignant and evocative pieces I’ve read recently on the grieving process. I think her being a poet gives her prose so much more depth and meaning in dealing with this most difficult of subjects.

I have been feeling raw this past few days and could not put my finger on any single specific reason. O’Rouke gave me some much needed perspective for which I am grateful.

A Grief Beyond Words

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. In this darkness, Lord be there!
(Psalm 130:1-2)

I have no fear of death or its images, of wakes and funerals and scenes of violence and mayhem. At least this is what I tell myself. If anything, I have gone through a phrase of inordinate fascination with death, looking into the face of it in an attempt to unlock its unfathomable mystery.

Except when the death involves a child and then I am overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and anguish. And anger. Old wounds I have struggled to heal from are reopened and I find myself flailing helplessly against a tide of sorrow.

A young boy was killed the week just past, and seeing his father trying to find words to express his family’s inexpressible grief broke my heart. He did a much better job than I could ever have done. When I was in his unenviable position years ago, I was struck dumb. It was my wife who stood up and spoke for us.

Looking at his stricken face during the last rites for the boy, I of course saw myself. The messages he wanted to impart were the very same ones I would have wanted to say, had my voice and heart not failed me. Continue reading

Death at Christmastime

Rubens’ Massacre of the Holy Innocents from

Death takes no holidays. We all know this but it would be too painful to acknowledge it during this season of supposed joy. Sometimes we are reminded of this undeniable truth on a grand scope, as happened during the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed an estimated 230,000 lives, and displaced millions. Its 4th anniversary was recollected on December 26 in homes and beaches from Indonesia to India. It is believed to be the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

More often death arrives on a more modest scale, although the tragedy is not in any way diminished by the numbers involved. Whether it be 1 or 100,000, the pain and anguish can be overwhelming for those forced to confront it. This is even more heart-rending in the case of children dying. Continue reading

A Boy’s Death

Here’s a moral and religous dilemma which I pray no one would ever face, but which will happen to a fair number of us in the light of advances in life-sustaining technology.

When does death occur ? More to the point, when is it morally proper to pull the plug ?

Motl Brody of Brooklyn, N.Y., was pronounced dead last November 4 after a half-year fight against a brain tumor, and doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in Wahington D.C. say the seventh-grader’s brain had ceased functioning entirely. He was brain dead. His orthodox Jewish parents went to court to maintain the boy on life-support, essentially to compel the hospital to keep him alive indefinitely through mechanical means by keeping his heart and lungs functioning. Under some interpretations of Jewish religious law, including the one accepted by the family’s Hasidic sect, death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning. The hospital argued that its “scarce resources” were being used “for the preservation of a deceased body.” Continue reading

Anthony Bourdain Was In Manila and I Didn’t Even Know It !

Photo from

Photo from

Anthony Bourdain of “No Reservations” fame was in Manila to film his show and I wasn’t even aware of it until weeks after he left. My wife knew, but didn’t say a word, not knowing or caring who Mr. Bourdain was.

As always, I found out first from the blogs, notably and I was on the verge of tears and dying of envy of everyone who had a chance to interact with the Great Bourdain. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the show and when I got a copy of “No Reservations” the book, around this time last year, and saw that he had never been to the Philippines, I knew that it was only a matter of time before he landed on our fair shores and sampled our unique cuisine.

Well it happened, and he and his crew went in and out the country like ninjas, stealthily but effectively. They had no choice, I suppose, as the resulting media frenzy would have kept him from sampling the authentic grub which was their real objective. And they did their homework, zeroing in on the authoritative people who could give them a broad sampling of honest Filipino cooking at its best during their short stay. Guys like Market Man, Claude Tayag and Gene Gonzales. Continue reading

Day of the Dead (and of the Living)

Today is All Saints’ Day, as the Catholic Church never tires of reminding us, and is meant to honor all the saints, known and unknown, and, according to Pope Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful’s celebration of saints’ feasts during the year. Like a make-up day for saints (now estimated to number between 3,000 to 10,000, no one knows for sure) who, for one reason or another, were not given their due during the year. That’s why it’s All Saints Day.

Tomorrow, November 2 is All Souls Day, the commemoration of all the faithful departed, and if this be a Sunday or a solemnity, like this year, it is moved to November 3. This is the day set aside for prayers and offering masses for all our loved ones who have gone before us.

No matter. For the majority of us, these are mere formalities which are conveniently ignored for the traditional commemoration cum family reunions at the gravesites of our dead relatives and friends today. It makes sense to visit the cemetery right after Halloween, making it a de facto two-day celebration. And a celebration it is, complete with food, flowers and good company, including, we’d like to believe, the otherworldly presence of our dearly departed. This is their day, after all. Continue reading

Animals Deal with Death Much Like Us

Gana grieves for her baby. Photo from

Gana grieves for her baby. Photo from

It appears that animals, specially primates, have an awareness of their mortality and that of their ilk, and grieve in ways that are strikingly human-like. I’m aware of the hazards and fallacies of anthropomorphizing, but a report in the New York Times shows that even rodents and insects have elaborate rituals when dealing with the dead. Continue reading