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Why do Filipinos crowd cemeteries on this day?

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I’M quite sure media started to call the Filipino feast of trooping to the cemeteries to honor their departed on November 1 as “Undas” only in the past several years.

I never heard the term used in our family. Instead, that must-observe ritual was called “Todos los Santos” or even “Araw ng mga Patay.” I was puzzled, though, why the cemetery-going day was on Todos los Santos or All Saints’ Day. Logically, we should be honoring our dead on November 2, All Souls Day, officially called by the Catholic Church “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.”

I thought it was merely that I didn’t know much of the Filipino language, so “Undas” was unfamiliar to me. However, even the legal scholar Fr. Joaquin Bernas wrote in his column several years ago that he was also baffled by the term, but that even his colleagues who were either steeped in Tagalog or Spanish couldn’t explain its origins. Filipino dictionaries, both printed and online, just translate “Undas” as “All Saints’ Day.”

I found no scholarly explanation of the term, but only blogs merely speculating on its etymology. One blogger pointed out that “undas” sounds close to the Spanish “onda,” which means “wave.” But what does “wave” have to do with honoring the dead?

Another thought is derived from the Spanish “honra,” which he claimed means “to respect.” Thus, Undas is the day we pay our respects to the dead. I doubt that very much, as I still remember from my college Spanish classes, that “to respect” is, of course, “respetar.”

So, without any acceptable explanation for “undas,” I propose one. I was led to my thesis by the fact that in southern Luzon, especially in Batangas, the term is not “undas” but “undras.”

I suspect somebody in media just had a bright idea that instead of the “Araw ng mga Patay” or All Souls’ Day, the shorter Batangueño term would be used, undras, claiming it was used all over the country, and would obviously be easier to put in headlines or say in tv news. Somehow this was further shortened to undas. Nobody questioned the term, so it caught on such that everyone now uses the word.

Zeus to Diyos

There could be an explanation of how “undras” emerged. Words in one language are known to morph into another word in another tongue, sounding the same and with the same basic meaning but with some changes. A classic example of this is “Zeus,” which is the name of the most powerful god in the ancient Greek pantheon. The word, though, evolved into the Latin “Deus,” to the Spanish “Dios,” and then the Filipino “Diyos,” all of which mean no longer just the most powerful god but the only God. The Filipino language has over 5,000 such loan words from Spanish, from “abante” (“avante”) to “yelo” (“hielo”).

Is there a Spanish word associated or linked with the custom of commemorating the dead on November 1 that sounds like undas or undras?

Yes, there is, in fact, a word at the center of that festival: “ofrenda,” plural “ofrendas,” which translates to “offer-ings.” “Ofrendas,” when quickly spoken, does sound like “undras.”

The term refers to the central duty of believers in Mexico on their “Undas,” which they call Dia de los Muertos, celebrated also on November 1. This is to construct a kind of mini-altar, either in their homes or in the cemetery, to honor their departed loved ones.

While we don’t use the term “ofrendas,” creating them is what we also do when we troop to the cemeteries on November 1. The rich in their family mausoleums set up candles, flowers, the dead’s huge elaborately framed photos, and the departed’s favorite food, and, even in some cases, I’ve seen the deceased’s favorite drink, whether beer or Scotch whiskey. Most, however, create their simpler ofrendas of lighted candles and flower ar-rangements on their departed’s tomb.

Contrary to what most people think, Undas wasn’t a creation of Catholicism, nor is it a practice among Catholics all over the world. Only Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil — and in less-intense forms, a few Latin American countries — celebrate the Day of the Dead in the way we know it, that is, one day of the year when everyone goes to the cemetery to honor their dead. Our Undas was an import from Hispanic Mexico, the reproduction here of its El Dia de los Muertos.

Feast of the Dead

This Day of the Dead actually needs much explaining.

Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter in the privacy of their homes with their families. Why would people commemorate their dead, who obviously passed away on different days of the year on one particular day, when everyone does so and undertakes this in one crowded place with strangers — crowds — all around them, thus di-minishing the solemnity of commemorating their loved ones?

The absurdity of the practice has become so obvious as our population has swelled, more and more die, so more and more people visit their dear departed in cemeteries which obviously have not grown in size, creating mam-moth crowds in these places on November 1 that risk people’s safety.

This is not a scene in the country but in Mexico. PHOTO FROM WIKIPEDIA

The festival reminds me of obviously irrational and dangerous religious practices, mostly in India, when hundreds of thousands of believers congregate in a single purportedly holy place on a particular day, in not a few cases resulting in a bridge collapsing, a terrorist bomb exploding, or a stampede breaking out, killing hundreds of pilgrims.

The explanation is that El Dia de los Muertos — and its version in our country — was based on the ancient pre-Hispanic Aztec civilization’s two major feasts, Miccailhuitontili (“Feast of the Little Dead Ones”) and Miccailhuitl (“Feast of the Adult Dead”) that come one after another, as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day do.

The Aztec belief was that on those days, the dead reunite not only with their family but also with the community in a festival of eating and drinking of the kind they enjoyed in life. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, this pre-Hispanic celebration continues outside the cemeteries, from town center to mardi-gras kind of parties. Undas, in short, is the partying of the dead.

(This, of course, is totally different from the Catholic belief that when a person dies, his soul is teleported to heaven, purgatory, or hell to return his reassembled body in a Resurrection day eons from now. That is, the soul certainly doesn’t go partying once a year with the living.)

Hijacked by friars

When the Spanish conquered Central America, they found these festivals of the dead so important to the indige-nous peoples that rather than banning them, their friars hijacked these and transformed them into Catholicism’s All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day holidays.

The Spanish colonized us after Mexico, and believing that the natives here had similar Aztec beliefs, they simply repeated what they did in Mexico and instituted the practice of honoring the dead on Todos los Santos. Friars who were first stationed in Mexico and then transferred here explained the ritual to the natives as the day when they should be creating ofrendas for their dead. To the Batangueños’ ears, “ofrendas” was “undras.”

That our Undas originated from the Aztec idea of partying with the dead explains the festive atmosphere on that day in our cemeteries.

The food and drinks put on the departed’s grave, the buffet tables in the mausoleums of the rich, the all-night drinking, mahjong games, and karaoke singing around the graves during Todos los Santos are really not aberrations of our commemoration of the dead. Such partying of the living with the dead is the essence of the Day of the Dead.

Indeed, many aspects of our culture that we think were from Spain were, in fact, from Nueva España (Spain’s colonial state that included Mexico), practices of the Aztecs disguised as Spanish Catholic rituals.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jordi Pons Ferrer

    I am from Spain and we too flood the cementeries on Todos Santos, November 1st. There is no partiyng for the deceased or anything of the sort, no food or drink is given to the dead, that would be seen as pagan, we just give flowers and dress in the most decent way possible to not offend our elders who take this day very seriously. While there are obvious similarities and the essence of Todos Santos is the same, it never ceases to surprise me how different the spanish treatment to honoring the dead is to the central american or filipino way,because our funerary traditions are grim and solemn, and any activity in which a bystander would confuse with a celebration or a casual family gathering would be seen as inapropiate, in great contrast to something like el Dia de Los Muertos

    Filipinos may have more similarities with the mexican way because most of the settlers that established themselves in the Philippines came from Nueva España, who are influenced by the Native American Aztec beliefs so brought these traditions abroad,i don’t think it’s because the colonisers were so ignorant as to think that filipinos believed in the same as the Central Americans so they made them be like them . I also don’t think that the pre-christian Philippines would see death as such a taboo subject judging on your neighoring countries, this dreadful mouring is very much an european thing, so the adoption of the mexican influence may have just come in naturally.

  2. Dorina S. Rojas

    Our Chinese friends do it with lots of food and colorful decorations also on Nov. 1 0r 2 and sometimes with singing or playing musical instruments. There are Christians who are non-Catholics like me who believe that our dead loved ones do not need our prayers because they have already been judged according to the Bible, but still, we visit the cemeteries to offer flowers as a token of love and reminisce those good old days. Maybe we don’t care how or when this practice started but I prefer to remember my departed loved ones with flowers and quiet time either at home or at cemeteries.

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