I had always associated this day with jovial get-togethers at the family mausoleum. Pleasantries, jokes, and fun memories of the deceased were exchanged amid laughter and bowls of ginatan (sweet coconut stew with lanka) and chicharon (crispy, deep fried pork rind). Large, fancy candles were burned nonstop, wafting the smell of wax into the air that was already suffused with the faint scent of flowers for the dead. My cousin and I would go from tomb to tomb collecting molten wax to form wax balls. By the end of the day, we would have created several chunks of wax the size of tennis balls.
More food would sometimes be given by the Chinese family whose mausoleum stood just in front of ours. Believing that food should be offered to the dead, they would cook more than they could consume and would give some of them to the families of neighboring tombs.
Part of the thrill of this day was to elbow our way through the slowly moving throng of families bearing candles and flowers for their dead kin. It had always been a slow and arduous ordeal, leaving us all smelling of candle smoke or, if we’re not too lucky, of grilled, sun-dried squid smoke (they loved selling this rubbery, jaw-breaking, foul-smelling delicacy in the cemeteries). It had always been worth the trek, though. I loved gazing at the other tombs—mausoleums that were way larger and more extravagant than ours or those cramped, inexpensive, tiny, tenement-style holes in the wall of the underprivileged, which we used to call “apartment tombs” when we were kids. Sadly, even in death, one is reminded of the grim reality of social classes.
Being the naughty kids that we were, my cousins and I would hunt for funny-sounding names on marble lapidaries and laugh out loud. We would also look for cracked tombs and peek inside, hoping to find discarded skulls or fractured hip bones. There was one time when we actually did find what seemed to be a leg bone. It gave us something to scare each other with the whole day.
Ironically, I’ve had fun memories of All Saints’ Day in the Philippines. The cemetery was like a curious playground for me as a kid and a fun venue for family reunions as an adult.
Today, however, I spent the day without the usual festive mood. I went all alone to Cimitière du Père Lachaise (Father Lachaise Cemetery) in the 20th arrondissement. Known as the graveyard of celebrities, this 44-hectare necropolis is arguably the most visited cemetery in the world. Some of its famous “residents” include Molière, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Eugène Delacroix, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, Gioacchino Rossini, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Piaf. It’s not surprising, therefore, to find more tourists wandering through its labyrinthine alleys and passageways than somber families bringing chrysanthemums to their deceased loved ones.
In my previous visits there, I had noticed a discrete stretch of lawn set against the west wall of the cemetery. This is called the Jardin du Souvenir (Garden of Memories), undoubtedly created for those who wish to pay homage to their dead who had been buried somewhere else. This garden is always full of bouquets left by people to remember those who, in life, had given them the sweetest of memories. This was where I wanted to go to honor the memory of my father who had died in September last year.
Having entered the cemetery through the Porte des Amandiers, I had to walk all the way to the other end of the sprawling necropolis to reach the Jardin du Souvenir. Armed with a map of the ancient graveyard, I slowly made my way on the damp cobbled streets, past grandiose monuments in red, black, white, and pink marble; past moss-covered statues of weeping women shrouded in mourning veils; past elaborately carved Gothic mausoleums; past stone effigies of 18th century dignitaries reclining on top of their tombs; past bas-relief of suffering Jesuses and grieving Marys; past muddy side streets covered with dried oak leaves; past deeply buried memories that, although forgotten, still stood in all their elegance, as if defying time itself. Some of them had fresh flowers—mostly chrysanthemums, the traditional funeral flower here—arranged in low, wide pots or vases.
There were also neglected mausoleums with broken stained glass windows or cracked tombstones that revealed yawning holes going at least four feet below the ground. I stopped at some of them to peek inside, hoping to find human bones, like what my cousins and I used to do. But I found none.
I’m not sure what my father would have thought if he had known I went to a foreign cemetery to honor his memory on All Saints’ Day. He had always hated going to the graveyard on this day when he was still alive. He hated the smell of the sweaty crowd, the pushing and the shoving just to get to our mausoleum, the lack of parking space, the smell of burning incense and candles which he thought was suffocating, and the general idea of braving the city traffic just to visit putrefying corpses. “They’re already dead, what else can you do about that?” he used to say.
Despite his protestations, he would always end up going because he had to drive the whole family there. There was even a time when, after having wandered off into my friend’s family tomb, I heard his voice in the cemetery’s loudspeakers (they install such equipment on this day to page the parents of lost kids, which gives you a rough idea how thick the crowds can get on All Saints’ Day in the Philippines) angrily ordering me to go to the parking lot immediately because they’re all waiting for me and it was already time to go home. My friends made fun of me for months because of this incident.
Now, he’s one of those rotting corpses he had not wanted to visit. Whether he liked it or not, there would be flowers and candles in his tomb today. And, one of his sons would be paying homage to him in a 19th century cemetery thousands of miles away.
The weather was bleak as I made my way through crumbling tombstones. The sun had not shown itself the whole day, the sky was sagging with gray clouds and it was slightly drizzling. My toes were starting to stiffen and I could see my breath in the chilly air. The trees looked eerie without their leaves as we were already well into autumn. I stopped in the middle of the passage and hastily wrote a note for my father on a small piece of paper.
When I reached the Garden of Memories, I saw that there were more flowers there than usual. I was briefly reminded of the large, expensive funeral wreaths given by friends and relatives during my father’s wake. They were too many we couldn’t hold them all inside the small funeral chapel on the second floor. We had them lined in the corridor, on the steps of the stairs, and out onto the sidewalk.
I stood in front of the assemblage of flowers and thought about my father. It was not easy to hold back emotions. If I had been in front of his actual tomb with my family, it would’ve been different. The mood would have been light, delightful even. We would have recounted his funny antics and stupid bloopers. We would have all laughed and remembered him with fondness. We would have felt fortunate that we got to have a father like him, who, despite the harshness of life, never wavered in his commitment and dedication to us all.
But here, all alone in a strange cemetery in the dreariness of autumn, things were different. I longed for his gentle words when I was down. I longed for his hand on my back whenever I felt depressed, which somehow, made me feel things would be all right. I yearned for his booming, angry voice that never failed to reprimand me whenever I would wake up late. I yearned to see him doing stupid, funny things with almost crass audacity.
I put out the short note I had written and wedged it between the thickly packed bouquets of flowers. I had scribbled my gratitude and my love on that paper. I knew there was no way he would be able to read what I had written there. Rotting corpses don’t read sweet notes left by their sons. They’re too busy decomposing. That’s probably what my father would have told me. My gesture was more for myself than for him. I know that despite the passage of years, despite my geographical distance from his tomb, and even if, in life, he was not so crazy about visiting tombs, I will not forget. A son will never forget.
I turned around and slowly made my way toward the exit, suddenly feeling old. It was getting darker and colder. The lethargic sun would set without having even risen at all. I gave one last look at the tombstones before I went out. They all looked desolate. Cemeteries did not seem like playgrounds anymore.