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When Death Comes to Iligan

It all begins with the end.

When one lives in a small town, one is acutely aware of a loss when someone has passed away. Like a single stone that plunges into a placid pool, a death in the barrio does not drown amidst urban noise or prattle; rather, it is the focus of a small town's energy for an  entire week. Vigils must be kept. Dreams must be interpreted in retrospect. Dead flowers must remain unswept. Witches must be kept away.

Maybe because I grew up attending many funerals in Iligan, I've developed a rather strange fascination with how people cope with the death of a loved one. Eventually, one masters the do's and don'ts of attending funerals. In doing so, I have realized that while the pain and grief over the loss of someone close is natural, a certain set of rituals, stories, and superstitions can help salve the wounds of those who have been left behind. Even if it involves removing the dead's shoes.

In a regular bid to stave off death, our elders have always insisted that we never cut our nails at night. One rainy night, our suking manikurista came to do a housecall only to be turned down because all five aunts didn’t want the blood of the next death on their hands. Or toes. Of course, the manicurist understood this perfectly and no apologies were needed. 

Now, even if we manage to prevent death by avoiding nocturnal pedicures, we still need to be watchful of our dreams. In Lanao, to dream of ships or a banca without outriggers foretells a death of a close relative because these things resemble coffins. If you dream of crossing a body of water or a river, death cannot be far behind. In fact, when Typhoon Sendong hit Iligan and Cagayan de Oro back in December 2011, many survivors from both cities could separately recount seeing or dreaming of a dark, old ship carrying thousands of people who appeared to glow from within.

Still, death comes to all, whether it be from a ship-filled dream or a heart attack. When someone dies, we are taught to hide the valuables of the deceased as quickly as possible. Not only is this to prevent theft, but to prevent the deceased from coming back to wear or use them. I remember being asked to store my grandmother's false teeth in its container right after she passed awayand I don't know what terrified me more: having to hold anyone's dentures, or the fact that it may clack at any moment because she came back for them.

When the embalming starts, town morticians are always urged by relatives to make sure that the deceased’s eyes are shut tight. This not only staves off the creep factor, but also ensures that the deceased does not "see" anyone he can take with him after the burial. In other towns, morticians are also asked that the dead do not wear shoes before they are placed in the coffin so that when the dead comes to visit the house, no one will hear him walking about. Which is probably a very, very good thing.

When the vigil begins, we are to keep candles (or faux candles) burning all night, otherwise the spirit of the loved one may never find his way out of Purgatory. Before we sleep, aunts always admonish us never to take the hand or accept anything from the deceased if they come to us in dreams, otherwise we would be next in line.  

We also can never sweep the floor on vigil nights. This inexplicable superstition drives us to tucking dried petals under the casket in a futile attempt to keep the area clean. 

Vigils are also be a great excuse for 24-hour beer and  mahjong matches to keep the dead company. Strangely enough, you are allowed to gamble away at the mahjong table but you can never, ever go to a cockfight until after the burial. This poses a problem for the town's derby bettors, who have to ask other people who never visit the deceased to place bets in their stead. 

All these efforts of keeping people fed, drunk, or entertained is, of course, necessary to keep everyone awake enough to guard the casket. After all, this 24-hour vigil is essentially a witch-watch: the unflagging conviction that witches still abound, disguised as funeral visitors, and come to  steal and eat body parts for the deceased. To prevent this, visitors must always keep an ear out for a singular squawking sound that tells you when a witch is nearby. It is always amusing to see everyone positively freeze at the squawking sound of a kwaknita bird, most likely a crowthat is said to be the witch's familiar and harbinger. Apparently, the more distant a  kwaknit sounds, the closer it is to the coffin. The problem is, most of the time, it squawks very, very softly.  

(In other towns, there are more practices to observe. For instance, one can expect the usual vigil food to be served, but never anything with kalamunggay. Since this plant easily dries up and falls, eating a dish made with it may invite another death soon.)

Come the day of the burial, superstition presents a host of interesting logistical problems. To stop later deaths from occurring in the same family, the coffin must be carried out a window and never through the front door. Since we don't have windows big enough to pass a casket through, we opt to open side doors and instantly label them as “back doors” and hope that the Grim Reaper can't tell the difference. Once the family successfully manoeuvres a casket out the window, it will always be someone's paramount task to ensure that the window is shut tightly as the family leaves, otherwise the spirit may insist on staying behind. 

When the casket is finally carried outside, all the relatives are made to pass under it as they make their way out. This rather inexplicable gesture apparently helps fortify one's courage to face the deceased loved one if he ever shows himself in the next few days. Not surprisingly, everyone passes under the coffin, even the paid pallbearers who don't even know who the deceased is. 

Once our loved one is laid to rest and everyone makes their way home, lengths are taken by funeral guests to stop by at other places before walking through their own front doors, lest they bring home whatever evil or otherworldly that still clings to their clothing. A common Northern Mindanao belief even suggests fumigating your entire family with the smoke of burned cemetery grass in order to avert any illnesses or deaths after the funeral. 

Days after the funeral, a curious countdown arises. The elders believe that on the third day after the burial, the dead appears only to the family member that they had loved the most. While this is a thrill to some, it is also a stressful and frightening time for others who fight to keep awake and try to not be alone in case the dead makes an appearance. One must also pay attention to inexplicable knocks or things that go bump in the next nine nights, as these are signs that the dead forgot to relay something important. In some towns in Bukidnon, they believe that if there are any unpaid debts, the dead pays a visit to his closest friends and ask them to cover the debt for him. My suggestion? Do a credit check on all your friends from that town. 

People say that one may live with a village but dies alone. In Iligan, where I'm from, one may still die alone, but elders will see to it that it does not stay that way. From ensuring 24-hour witch patrols to preparing the deceased's favorite food on the ninth day after the burial, rituals abound not only to ensure that the dead cross safely from our world to the next, but also to show that when our time comes, the same ritual and attention will be lavished upon us and the loved ones we leave behind.