Memory remains

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - November 10, 2020 - 12:00am

To be alive is to face death, and to be human is to contend with what that means, for us and for those who have passed on. Almost every culture has traditions and rituals concerning the dead, obligations that fall upon their kin, whether symbolic or secular. Some of the earliest evidence of human religion comes from the existence of burial sites that date from 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. These rituals for memorializing the dead come in a great many varieties: some require prompt burials, while others keep the mummified remains in their homes; in Tibet, a sky burial is when a body is left atop a mountain exposed to the elements, while in Madagascar, a Famadihana is when ancestors are exhumed, wrapped in new cloth, and family members dance with the bodies. There are smaller-scale traditions as well, passed or begun in families rather than in entire communities, and for all that they may seem silly or non-sensical to others, they serve the same purpose as those with centuries of lineage.

Rituals for the dead help us remember, and they help us heal. Most of these rituals take place in public, in the open. In giving us a socially acceptable venue for grief, they allow those of us that have suffered loss an outlet for pain or reminiscence, in a place where the community can come together to give us support. They can serve as borders which mark a transition, that make the death real to us. There are studies that show rituals – even the newest, most simple ones – can help reduce feelings of grief and make us feel less helpless in the face of something beyond our control. After all, rituals are all about symbolic actions, things we can plan for and control, offerings we can procure and words we can say. Whether these rituals are religious or not, the benefits to many are real and tangible.

This is why, as All Souls’ Day passes with many cemeteries in the country closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important that we recognize that – while public health continues to be our paramount concern – these death rites play a meaningful role for many of us, and even their temporary loss is not something that should be simply shrugged off. After all, as these traditions themselves teach us, it is important to recognize loss when it occurs.

A small study on the effect of the suppression of traditional funeral rituals in Brazil during the pandemic has led to a more difficult grieving process, and a lack of closure. It exacerbates the sense of helplessness, and if the loved one died of COVID-19, the survivors – rather than being treated with sympathy – may instead be ostracized for fear that they too carry the virus.

The need to prevent large gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19 is an integral part of any plans to safeguard public health. However, as I’ve mentioned before, mental health is a part of public health, and steps must also be taken to give the people a means to safely engage in acts that help them process their grief and remember their loved ones.

A recent article in the Washington Post offered potential methods of communal grieving that would be safe alternatives to the traditional gatherings for as long as the pandemic is with us. These include virtual gatherings (some Philippine funeral parlors offer live streaming of proceedings), the creation of new rituals (designating a set time every day for a joint activity, such as sharing a story about the deceased) or planning an in-person event for when COVID-19 has been brought under control. (Note that while the cemeteries in Metro Manila were closed for a period around Nov. 1, they should be open again by the time this column sees print, although there will be restrictions on the number of visitors depending on the quarantine level.) Communities and religious organizations too must do their part in promoting safe, alternative ways of participating in their rites.

In that regard, it would be useful for there to be unified guidelines regarding the allowable procedure in the event of deaths during the pandemic. While the DOH has rules regarding the cremation or burial of bodies of those that died due to an infectious disease such as COVID-19, there’s less clarity with those who did not die of COVID-19 or who died while their tests had still not returned, which can lead to situations such as the one in Cebu last September where two sitios were locked down because some of their residents attended a wake of a person whose COVID positive results only arrived during the wake.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that “[t]he work of love in recollecting one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love… the freest love… the most faithful love… Recollect the one who is dead; then in addition to the blessing that is inseparable from this work of love, you will also have the best guidance for rightly understanding life: that it is our duty to love the people we do not see but also those we do see.” The customs we have formed around the death of our loved ones are not rote forms or empty gestures – they are an integral part of who we are, serving as a rite of passage from one chapter of our lives to the next. They are an expression of love, not just for the one who has passed away, but for ourselves and those that remain. Even in remembering the dead, the priority must still be with protecting and enabling the living. We still need our rituals, a space for us to grieve and for our families and friends to help us shoulder a burden that may be too overwhelming for ourselves alone. But in the midst of a pandemic, these rituals will need to adapt, just as they have adapted many times before in our history. After all, the best way to keep the memories of our loved ones alive is to ensure that we ourselves live on.

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