The magnetism of cemeteries

In the early 1990s, long before thoughts of mortality began to cast a shadow on our active lives, my wife and I bought a memorial plan. It was cheap. We basically paid only for a wake and a cremation, instead of a whole package that typically includes a coffin and a patch of graveyard space in a private memorial park.

We thought then that a cremation plan was the most practical thing to have, for it didn’t make much sense to purchase a burial plot ahead of a home lot. I was also convinced that precious real estate belonged to the living rather than to the dead.  It pricked my conscience to see homeless families in the metropolis living in shanties inside public cemeteries.

Farthest from my mind was the question of what to do or where to keep the ashes or cremains. I took it for granted that our children might want to keep the urns at home, or deposit them in the tombs of our parents, where they would occupy very little space.  Little did I know that with cremation would come the columbaria—vaulted structures where cinerary urns are kept.  Like graveyard plots in cemeteries, they, too, can cost a fortune depending on the location.

Recognizing the growing popularity of cremation, the Vatican, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently issued an “Instruction” concerning the proper Christian handling of the ashes of the dead.  The Church has long lifted the prohibition on cremation, but it continues to express a strong preference for the burial of the dead. Where people opt for cremation for valid reasons, the rule is for them to bury or deposit the urn containing the ashes in a cemetery or in a sacred place, keeping the ashes intact instead of dividing or scattering them.

These guidelines specifically discourage certain practices that have gained popularity in recent times—like parceling out cremains into little urns and lockets for distribution to various family members, very much as if they were part of the heirloom. As thoughtful and sentimental as they may be, the Church regards these as forms of appropriation of something that belongs alone to God.  The Church also frowns upon the ritualized scattering of the ashes of the dead in the wind or over the vast ocean, in literal enactment of life’s return to Nature.

The Church is emphatic about the doctrinal and pastoral reasons for keeping the dead where they should be—in cemeteries. “Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs, Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.”

One need not be a Christian to appreciate the value of cemeteries to the human community. The writer Elias Canetti writes that cemeteries “induce a special state of mind.” I believe he’s right.  For me, cemeteries constitute one of the strongest bonds connecting generations to one another.

When I visit cemeteries, it is usually the dates written under the names that fascinate me. Gazing upon the dates of birth and the dates of death on tablets and crosses, I often marvel at the irony of seeing a life reduced to a tiny dash connecting two dates. Indeed, some lives have been short, and some long.  But, on reflection, one realizes that it is not the number of years that impresses us, but what people did during their lifetime, for which we remember them.

I grew up in a home located along the street that led to the town cemetery. I was witness to funeral processions that passed by our house on any given week. I suppose this is part of the reason death holds almost no terror for me.  The cemetery was also my favorite playground. There, my friends and I flew our kites in the cool northeast wind atop the apartment tombs of our departed town mates.

We would sometimes pause in front of some familiar names—a classmate who died very young from an unknown disease, an old lady who gave generous gifts during Christmas, the family dentist who pulled my first decayed tooth, the woodcarver who made our furniture, the carpenter who used to come to our house to do repairs, the barber who used to cut my hair.  They were simple folk who all held a place in my memory.

The Betis town cemetery, on whose concrete portal is emblazoned the ominous reminder “Acu ngeni, ica bucas” (“Me today; you tomorrow”) held, for me, the closest equivalent to a theology of death.  But, more than this, our cemetery also served as the one most enduring place that linked me to the larger community beyond my family.

We have a modest burial plot near the main gate of this cemetery, which is now home not just to my grandparents but also to a number of uncles and aunts, and cousins from my own generation. When my father died, it seemed inconceivable not to bury his remains beside those of his parents.  But, after my mother’s death 20 years later, we decided to transfer his remains to Himlayang Pilipino in Quezon City, where we buried my mother, mainly because it was closest to where we lived. Years later, we moved their bones to a crypt behind the altar of a small chapel near a retreat house that my brother Bishop Ambo built on the slopes of Mount Malasimbo in Dinalupihan, Bataan.

It is a perfect place for solitude and reflection.  I go there at least once a month to commune with the spirit of my late parents, to watch birds, and to read. But on All Souls Day, I would be inexplicably gripped by a sense of something missing if I failed to visit the cemetery of the old community of which I am a part.