20 July 2010

My Grandmother's Ashes



There were quite a few things I expected upon returning to Austria a day after my grandmother's death. Going to the magistrate to order a cremation straight after being picked up on arrival and then after that, accompanying my family to the morgue to see my grandmother's body for the last time only a few hours after setting foot in Vienna was certainly not one of them.

On the journey from London, I had prepared myself for seeing the first dead body in my life. I imagined a groomed, made up and dressed body in an open coffin, as is customary in the Philippines (in Austria, they seal the coffin at the funeral, so death is a rather sterile business). Being rushed to the see the unembellished face of death by a bunch of relatives who had seen dead people before as part of their cultural and professional background was not quite what I had in mind and so I declined and instead decided to wait outside with my infant cousin. It is a shame for I believe it is important to see the deceased to fully comprehend the abstract notion of human mortality and accept the death of a loved one. Besides, it might be better for the first dead body to be somebody who had been washed and frozen rather than somebody whose mutilated body had been lying in the sun for too long as I am bound to see eventually as an aid worker.

I spent the first week in Vienna at my Filipino family's place which was quite convenient. As is also customary in the Philippines, the family invites friends to pray for nine days. Usually, this happens as part of the wake in a rented chapel with the open coffin. Dozens of people show up anytime around the clock to join in group prayer (called "novena") and talk about the person who passed away, the circumstances of their death, the timing, perhaps like when death was the result of an illness, that it was a good thing the person died. In the city, they also bring their take-away food from outside as they stay for a few hours. In Austria though, the body would not be released by the government. Since there was no point then in renting a chapel, my family hosted a daily buffet at home with a with a framed picture of my grandmother surrounded by religious statues, a candle burning 24 hours in a lantern and every day, a plate of the food we were eating. I guess the social function it serves is to enforce community cohesion and share emotional support. It also provides opportunity to remember the deceased in life and discuss the last moments with several people again and again, surely important to overcome the shock of my grandmother passing away so quickly due to complications after what was supposed to be a life-enhancing surgery.

So every day, 20-30 people dropped by in the evening and in addition to the already unusually hot and humid weather which is reminiscent of Southeast Asia, working on job applications in the living room with three separate dishes being prepared in an open-plan kitchen before people arrived was quite a challenge, to say the least. Even the electric fans were not able to keep up.

There are also quite a few debatable rules for events like these which can differ from province to province, city to village: You are not supposed to thank people when they donate money to the family left behind; you are not supposed to see leaving guests to the door; you must not sweep the house (for it shoos away the spirits which is bad luck); you are not supposed to give people food to take home (as happens most of the time when you have people over for a meal) but any food left over from the nine days must be disposed of on the last day. What a waste of food! Normally, it is also not allowed to serve "fruits like watermelons", as somebody explained to me but since this was the last food my grandmother requested when in hospital, we served it a lot as dessert. It was quite interesting as an anthropologist to follow the discussion of these rules and beliefs. Some referred to their village shaman as point of reference (I was wondering if it was a genuine shaman or a more commercial shaman who deliberately seeds confusion to stay in business) - a typical manifestation of the famous religious syncretism in Southeast Asia.

There also is quite some numerology involved. Probably in reference to Jesus's resurrection, it is commonly believed that the deceased will make an appearance to loved ones in the three days after passing away (ie strange coincidences or a warm embrace or hearing a voice when one is alone). On the ninth day, the soul is said to ascend to heaven and that is I believe, when the burial should normally take place. Cherished objects are placed in the coffin and friends or family pin ribbons with their names on the upper lid of the coffin. I believe my family asked the pathologist to tell the undertaker to put the shirt my grandmother had picked for my cousin's first birthday into the coffin (unfortunately, she did not fit into it anymore after she died so she was dressed in another shirt - again, in the Philippines the family can dress the body if they like while in Austria they are not allowed to).

For a year, people are supposed to wear sombre clothing, nowadays often substituted by a black pin. It also supposedly brings bad luck to marry during this year. On the anniversary of the person's death, a final prayer will be made and the period of mourning will be over. On All Souls Day, people go to the cemetery and have picnics right there and then with their passed away loved ones. I find it quite a beautiful tradition for it shows that you do not forget that person while at the same time celebrating life. The day can be far from quiet however but is more of festival character, not unlike Día de los Muertos in Latin America if perhaps not quite as colourful and bold. To get an idea of the All Souls celebrations in the Philippines, have a look at THIS video clip from Philippine news channel GMA TV about the 80 000 people flocking to a cemetery in Manila.



Usually, people are buried as a whole but I believe my grandmother asked to be cremated. The ceremony was quite nice. A friend of the family brought yellow roses for people to put on the coffin (yellow was my grandmother's favourite colour). My younger aunt who is gifted with a beautiful voice, sang a song. A Filipino priest came (my grandmother was a devout but moderate Christian) to send her off spiritually with a mini mass. Another friend of the family recorded the whole event on video for other family and friends of my grandmother abroad to be able to watch the ceremony later.

The next step is to take my grandmother's ashes back to Manila (she was only visiting in Austria), so her friends can take leave from her and so her last remains can be buried in a cemetery at home. Quite expensive to find flights at such short notice in summer but important enough to try and count every penny together. It helps that my grandmother had travel insurance on her return ticket and that there is a person in my family's extended network who is a travel broker for a Philippine travel agency and was able to find a more affordable deal. I declined an offer to have my flight paid for because I knew that person would dig deep into their pockets only to enable me to accompany my grandmother, attend the burial and see the Philippines for the first time in ten or so years as part of a big reunion. Also, I really have to find a job as soon as possible and promised to attend two weddings this summer.

Quite a welcome in Vienna.



3 courageous comments!:

Jann said...

Iya, ada banyak detail yang aku tidak tahu. Kasihan keluargamu! Mengharap perjalanan ke Manila baik dan keluarga dan teman-teman nenekmu bisa berpamitan. tradisi Filipina menarik sekali!
hati-hati Heidi!

Heidi said...

terima kasih! ya, keluarga saya masih sedih tapi saya berpikir bawah perjalanan ke manila adalah potensi untuk membantu mengatasi kesedihan mereka.

muda-mudahan bertemu lagi di inggeris!

Anonymous said...

Good post and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you for your information.