They who tend our loved ones’ graves

In a few days, it will be All Souls’ Day, and my thoughts turn to those who rarely figure in the ethnography of Undas. They are the freelance gardeners at memorial parks whose livelihood depends solely on the patronage of owners of burial plots. They form an essential part of the infrastructure of our unceasing relationship with the dead.

They trim, sweep, and water the narrow patch of grass that covers our loved ones’ graves. They take out the wilted flowers and candle stubs from our last visit to make room for the fresh ones we bring. Seen yet barely noticed, these sunburnt caretakers of burial grounds constitute an invisible presence that somehow assures us that, even in our absence, our departed loved ones are never quite alone.

They keep a discreet distance and seldom intrude into our solitude and the silence of our unshared grief. Sometimes, they hover around, eager to offer words beyond the perfunctory greetings—perhaps a conversation, but only if we are disposed to have one.

For the pittance they charge for their services, it has always struck me how these hardworking people are able to build a plausible life by tending to the graveyards of the dead.

Over the last three years since my wife died, I have been a weekly visitor at the Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina. On the day of her inurnment, after almost every mourner had left, the couple Bing and Bibing quietly approached one of my daughters to ask if the family would like them to plant the grass and look after the plot on a regular basis.

They have been caring for my in-laws’ adjoining burial plots for some years now, and, of course, they had met “Ma’am Karina” who regularly visited her parents’ graves. Without hesitation, we entrusted the care of her own garden to this kindly couple.

I believe we have struck a relationship that has proven to be mutually beneficial to us both. I have gifted them with a barely used grasscutter that was just gathering rust in my garden shed. It’s an essential tool of their trade that they had been trying to save money for, and they didn’t expect to own one so soon. In addition to the annual service fee they expect from the plot owners they serve, usually given at this time of the year, I habitually leave them a small tip for the extra care they lavish on Karina’s grave. For instance, the painted etching on the marble plate bearing her name and dates of birth and death, which tends to fade in the heat and rain, is constantly refreshed. Little things like that matter.

But, more than anything else, it’s the conversations with them over the last couple of years that, in my case, have helped lessen the unbearable sadness of a cemetery visit. They tell me of the people who have come to visit and brought flowers on special occasions. Of the lonely burials that have taken place at the height of the pandemic, of burial plot owners who have migrated and are looking to sell their valuable patch of land, of the untended graves that have not been visited in years.

I have learned that Bing, the wife, started working in this same cemetery since she was a young girl. Her parents and older relatives had been caretakers just like them. She was once married and had a daughter from that marriage. Now, at 50, she is a grandmother. She met her present partner Bibing, who is much older, in the nearby community beside the Marikina River. He used to work as a night-shift security guard. He, too, was previously married; his wife left him and their five children for another man.

Bing and Bibing have been together for more than 25 years now. Last year, to mark their 25th year as a couple, they hoped to get married and asked me if I could be a sponsor at their wedding. I readily agreed. But a year has passed, and the planned wedding has yet to happen. I asked why, and the quick reply was they were still saving for it.

I told them that unless they were thinking of a big wedding with over a hundred guests, getting married at that stage in their lives should not be too expensive. I volunteered to invite a priest to officiate and host a simple breakfast for a handful of their friends, but they politely declined my offer. There’s a hint of pride there that I didn’t dare to counter.

They have asked about my children, where they are, and what they do. They know all their names by now, but it is Kara they know best, not just because they are able to talk to her when she visits, but because they follow her programs on television. It is Bing who is keen to know about our family; Bibing, who’s turning 70, is more interested in my motorcycles. “How fast and how far have you gone on that bike?” he would ask. Not once has he inquired if I’ve ever been afraid of crashing — which, of course, I am.

You can’t expect to talk about the prospect of dying when you’re with people whose occupational habitat is the cemetery. To them, surviving day-to-day life is the problem. There are bills to pay, medicines to buy, grandchildren to look after, and jobless children with families to worry about. So preoccupied are they with the whole business of living that they have no time to worry about their own deaths.

Seeing this, I have often wondered if fear of death is a middle-class thing, the affliction of poets and intellectuals and unbelievers in particular. For I have not seen or heard it among those who encounter death daily in the course of their working lives—what the poet Philip Larkin, in his poem Aubade, somberly describes as: “The sure extinction that we travel to/ And shall be lost in always. / Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.”