One of the busiest holidays in the Philippines is the All Saints’ Day or Undas when Filipino families would stream in cemeteries to pay tribute to their departed loved ones. Asian families like Filipinos have a close knit family ties that even when their loved ones have departed, they would still be there to serve one last time. While some Filipinos are a bit contented with a whole in the ground and a tombstone for their loved ones, the Chinese have a unique way of sheltering the departed. Since I will not be able to go back to my hometown, I decided to check out the cemeteries nearest my place. Being of Chinese heritage myself, I decided to choose Manila Chinese Cemetery not only for convenience but in tribute to my departed ancestors.
One of the most unique features of Chinese cemeteries are its palatial mausoleums. While rich Filipino families may build mammoth structures for their departed, it seems that this one is a “must” custom among Chinese people. For one, I never say a burial in the Chinese cemetery that is below ground. If the family of the departed cannot afford to build a mausoleum, they bury their departed either on open air above ground tombs or on “apartment” block type of tomb. This can be explained by the fact that Chinese people believe the underground is the domain of the underworld spirits that wreck havoc.
By that matter, there is a curious slabstone inscribed with “houtu” always present in every Chinese tombs. Chinese mythologies has it that Houtu is one of the royal goddesses who preserves the balance between yin and yang. This slabstone bearing the mythical character’s name is believed to preserve the balance of good and evil round the departed’s tomb in the belief that this will ensure a safe passage to the afterlife. While a lot of Chinese have embraced Catholicism, this tradition lives on albeit retransformed with the inscription of Houtu now replaced with that of the cross.
Aside from the Houtu slabstone, there is also one common feature among the tombs and that is the offering furnace. I passed by some still smoking from the last visitor’s little ritual. Here, objects representing worldly materials like money, cars, houses and many more are burned as an offering to the ancestral spirits. One common feature of animistic religions are the belief that one carries material possessions somehow spiritually to the afterlife. While the ancient peoples in what is now the Philippines especially the Cordillera peoples bury treasures with the dead, these offerings are a way to bring treasures to the beloved departed. The smoke that rises to the heavens is symbolic of the offerings reaching the ancestors.
The stroll at the Manila Chinese Cemetery also offers some curious structures especially in the oldest parts of the area. Manila Chinese Cemetery dates back from the Spanish era when a plot of land was set aside for the burial of non-Catholic Chinese. In the olden days, consecrated ground like La Loma Cemetery are only reserved for those baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Chong Hock Tong, Manila’s oldest Taoist temple, is the centerpiece of the burial grounds. Times have changed that even Catholic Chinese are now buried inside the cemetery. Some mausoleums are even reminiscent of cathedrals which can point to the importance of the departed. Burial in true cathedral crypts are only reserved for bishops and the most important people of society.
I went to the oldest part of the cemetery which has the most ornate tombs. Fu dogs are the most common statues that adorn the gates of the tombs which acts as a ceremonial guard to the domicile of the departed. Some of the tombs chose to adapt to the Western themes too with angel or cherub statues as ceremonial guards. I found one curious tomb which has two small replicas of the sphinx as the ceremonial guard. What a lovely mix of two most ancient civilizations in this lovely tomb.
In all these ornate representations of the afterlife, I reflected in the meaning of death. In my Christian Faith, life does not end in death but a place called heaven awaits for those who are called in God’s elect. It is by death that one can truly live life in full circle. Death was the showcase of love which Jesus Christ redeemed the world. All these material possessions that we store up to our very tombs will rot but the very legacy of faith which one leaves marks an indelible imprint in the lives of those one departs from. Nevertheless, these gargantuan tributes to the departed proves Man’s very search for what is eternal. Each tomb tells a story of one’s life, the traces of candles, incense and flowers a memorial to a life the departed once lived.
Cemeteries offer us a wide mix of emotions but as I went along skipping in the narrow alleyways, this sense of hidden fear somehow turned into inner peace. One thing is for sure, I am still alive and I ought to live life not just for myself but for the sake of others. Each day God gives in our lifetime is a blessing of more days to impact someone else’s life. While these tombs offer a showcase of beauty, this is not where I want to be. I know somehow that this will not be my home even when time comes for me to depart. These palatial abodes for the departed are but a mere speck of what the life after has to offer. As I look into the heaven’s above, I remember Apostle Paul’s words. In this world, I am but a mere traveler carrying a bright light that should show the way in view of the true home that you and I may dwell in eternity.
Manila Chinese Cemetery feature photos not included here are posted in my photoblog for your curiosity.