A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: How powers-that-be could challenge tradition and get away with it

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 Oct) – A week ago, the Local Government Unit of Davao City announced that from October 24 until November 7 this year, all public and private cemeteries will be closed as an antidote in the further spread of COVID-19.

As far as can be ascertained there was hardly any objection to this cemetery ban. Even as there would have been members of some households who expressed displeasure at hearing this announcement, there was silence in the public sphere. No one would dare speak up in public denouncing such a violation of a sacred aspect of their religious tradition.

Even before the coming of the Spanish colonizers, our indigenous ancestors had a deep reverence for the dead. Notes taken down by chroniclers who arrived with the early colonizers noted the elaborate burial rituals undertaken by our ancestors. Ethnographic studies through the centuries have attested to this phenomenon, the consequences of which were the strong belief in the sacredness of burial sites; the long period of mourning punctuated with a lot of chanting and feasting; and the importance of showing deep respect for the dead ancestors.

When the Marcos regime decided to build a dam across the Chico River in the Kalinga territory of the Cordilleras, the katutubo – headed by Macliing Dulag – mounted a rebellion which led to the cancellation of this project. What caused this unrest? The dam would have inundated the burial sites which would erase their memory of their ancestors, a very unacceptable prospect for the entire community.

When the evangelization campaign of the Spanish friars began across the islands after the setting up of the Spanish colony across our archipelago, following the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565, the friars creatively found a way to appropriate our indigenous ancestors’ manner of expressing their belief in a Diety and the afterworld through various means. Thus the Catholic tradition of celebrating the fiesta of the patron saint, which was really founded in the age-old festivities of our ancestors to honor their nature and/or ancestral spirits, usually taking place after harvests or a bountiful hunting season.

Thus was also born the Kalag-kalag festivities around the November 1-2 dates, which were transformed into the All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. And since then towards the end of October until the first few days of November, Filipino Catholics flocked their cemeteries to pay respects to their dead.

At the public – and later with the rise of private memorial – cemeteries, the masses flocked these little spaces. As public cemeteries are packed and are not well set up with pathways, people are forced to step on graves to be able to move from one place to another, as they carry candles, flowers and food to be placed at the tombs of their dead relatives. And there would be loud music everywhere, along with vendors selling everything from soft drinks to fans.

Rain or shine, martial law or terrorist threats – all these did not matter to the population eager to visit their dead during the Kalag-kalag days. Even at home, offering food on the altar was quite common among the masses, as grandmothers and mothers believed that the soul of their dead relatives are bound to come for a visit. And even if they could not eat the food on the altar, they can smell them and thus the dead are supposed to acknowledge the continuing love for them. Otherwise, as the older women would warn the children, they will come to haunt the ungrateful relatives.

And now comes this protocol, imposed from above by an LGU using as an excuse the feared spread of the virus. No more visits to your loved ones during the prescribed traditional period, do it later! The fact that no one openly complains and accepts the consequence of the end of a tradition, is one that needs to be discoursed by anthropologists. What is this saying? Tradition as part of culture can easily be set aside for the sake of the common good? The powers-that-be can appropriate the authority to make that decision for the rest of the population?

But this is, of course, not new. After all through the colonial years of the Spanish and American occupation, much of our indigenous traditions were trampled upon. And even as some have survived among the existing indigenous communities, nonetheless they are but a memory of the past for most lowland Filipinos. And during Marcos’ martial rule, some traditions – e.g., having school activities in the evening even beyond midnight – were scrapped owing to demands of national security the need to impose a curfew.

And even today, the miting de avance tradition that goes back a century ago no longer makes sense, given the power of social media with trolls dominating all online platforms. So there seems to be occasions when the power of political structures (i.e., the State apparatus) can so decide to introduce radical changes in culture that the population cannot resist in any form. After all, it is unthinkable these days for Catholics to mount a street protest denouncing the LGU’s cemetery ban.

Meanwhile, however, the liquor ban has been lifted in the city, certainly good news to those who miss their drinking sessions with their buddies. But why now? Is it because infection rates have gone down? Or is it because, after the Kalag-kalag days, the population gears up for the Christmas-New Year holidays? And how can people have festivities in these very important holidays if alcoholic drinks are not made available? And of course, the election fever is on and politicians need to reach out to voters – a tradition, unfortunately, that is still very much in place.

Anyway, here’s to whatever meaningful way we can celebrate the Kalag-kalag. And if the elderly women are correct – expect the souls to haunt us in our homes in the coming nights because we are not able to visit them in their graves at our cemeteries.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]