Etching Gravestones

by Juan L. Mercado


“Will  there be a next time?,” Roberto asked  as we pulled up  before the Rome hostel.  We had  returned from Tuscany.  In  Poggio village, we lit  candles at the grave of Peter, a fellow UN  officer, killed in an autobahn accident.  The next day, we’d fly back to our Bangkok station. “Let me  give you  an abrazo,”  Roberto  said.  “Just in case.”

All  Souls’ Day is marked  Friday.  We’ve added  Roberto’s name to the list of departed kin and friends for the requiem mass.  He just died from pancreatic cancer.  “Life is changed not taken away”, the mass preface will  say.

“Death is  not the extinguishing of life,’ 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote. “It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

Araw ng  mga Patay (Day of the  Departed)  is celebrated  November 2. The day before  is  what  our grandparents called “Todos los Santos “.  All Saints Day is  when people  flood into cemeteries  for rites of remembrance.

Like the year before, “decajon” reports swirl about traffic snarls, pickpockets, karaoke blasting  in overcrowded vacated  by squatters.  Don’t put up posters depicting your faces, the church warned 2013 candidates.

We’ve  brushed up the family  niches.  One holds the  ashes of our mother and two younger brothers.  A line from John is carved in the headstone: “I am the resurrection and the life”.  The wife and I reserved the next niche for ourselves  “when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers.”  We’ve still to decide what to etch into our headstone.

“Death plucks my ears and says: Live – I am coming”, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on his 90th birthday.  All Souls Day confronts with the sheer messiness and pain of  human existence. Who hasn’t cried at funerals of  kith or kin ?  Before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept.”

“We’re in the twilight of life,” we  recall  telling Press Foundation of Asia officers. “Don’t say that,” publisher Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr. gently remonstrated. “We  still  have  plenty of time.”  Before the year ended, Geny was gone.

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” Thomas a’ Kempis counseled. “In the morning, consider that you may not live till nightfall. Many die when they least think of it. … A man is here today. And tomorrow, he is gone. And when he is taken out of sight, he is also quickly out of mind.”

It is a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, says  the Book of Macabees (100 B.C)  Some 2,500 years before Easter’s empty tomb, Job exulted. “My Redeemer lives… and will stand forth upon the earth. After my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God”.

Rome catacombs show Christians,  hiding from persecution,  prayed for the departed.  In  998 AD, Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny picked November 2 for this remembrance. This practice spread to other countries, including the Philippines.

At  Myther’s  watering hole for journalists, Manila  Bulletin editor-in-chief  Crispulo Icban  and  I once scribbled, on a scratch pad,  names of colleagues  who’d  passed on.  They included Joaquin “Chino” Roces, Chronicle’s Primitivo Mijares, salvaged for his book on the Marcos “Conjugal  Dictatorship”,  to the copyboy in the newsroom.  How did half a century of journalism pile up so many names?                                                   .

“We give them back to you O Lord, who first gave them to us”, “an ancient prayer  for All Souls’ Day says. “Yet, as you do not lose in giving, so we have not lost them by their return… Death is only a horizon. And a horizon is the limit of our sight.                                  .

“We thank you for the deep sense of mystery that lies beyond our mortal dust.  Lift us up, that we may see further, as one by one, you gather scattered families, from the distraction,  strife and weariness of time to the peace of eternity.”                                  .”

A community of believers, share cross the divide of death, grace that surges into eternal life, the catechism teaches.  We belong to  a  communion of saints”;  a  family of the living and the dead, bound together by sacrament, prayer and praise. (Many) will grow in his love, until they see God as He is.

We can talk with those called before us, Oblate professor Ron Rolheiser says. Reconciliation that wasn’t possible before their deaths can now occur.  “Inside the communion of saints, we have privileged access to each other”. We can finally speak those words that we couldn’t speak before, make the amends and speak the apologies we owe.” We can reach across death’s divide.

There are  capital “S” saints. Their names ring out when the Litany of Saints is chanted:  Mary, mother of Christ, with Joseph;  Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila,  Ignatius Loyola, Therese of Lisieux;  Lorenzo Ruiz of Binondo and after October 23’s  canonization rites,  Pedro Calungsod of  the  Visayas.

There are also small letter “saints”: maids, teachers, barbers to nuns and market vendors. Despite flaws, these obscure men and women serve God in neighbor. “Here comes everybody’s feast,” author James Joyce wrote“ of All Souls Day.

“We commended the dead into the hands of God when they were laid in the grave” says the nuanced agreed statement from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  ”And on this day we are united before God in our remembrance of them.”

All re-echo  the 8th century BC  vision of Isaiah: “He will destroy death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face”.


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