Tuesday, November 4, 2008
(Photo courtesy of Ironwulf.net)
Sagada has a very unique way of celebrating All Saints Day and this is due to the atypical location of its cemetery. Sagada’s central cemetery is part of the Anglican Mission Compound, and located above the St. Mary’s School, St. Mary the Virgin Church and the rectory. The cemetery is not in a flattened area. In fact, the tombs are scattered along the slope of a hill going up to the selected site for Calvary . One takes a winding upward path from the church to reach the place. (It is also the place where I’ve seen my first and only ghost but that is a different blog post altogether.)
While most Filipinos bring candles to light at the tombs of their loved ones on All Saint’s Day, Sagada locals would prepare bundles of wood and “saeng“. (I can’t translate this right now but suffice to say that it is a type of pine wood that combusts easily). Candles are of little use against the wind in the Sagada cemetery, so the people build bonfires instead.
A vivid childhood memory I have is the sight of dozens of bonfires lighting up the slope of the mountain where the cemetery is. Add to this the thick columns of smoke going up from the fires and the arrival of dusk, and it probably would look like a scene from a horror movie. The environment however, is far from gloomy. Children roam around happily, and parents watch that they don’t cause any damage. Relatives of those buried in tombs with limestone epitaphs advise those building bonfires to make these at safe distances to avoid damaging the stones. A drunken man may be seen visiting the resting places of his buddies, pouring a bit of San Miguel over the bonfires and thus allowing the alcohol to further strengthen the flames. There’s the occasional shout or two that can either be a warm greeting or a warning of some kind. Fire, after all, is something that can easily spread if not watched closely.
I do use candles on these occasions and as I’ve seen my mom do, I visit the tombs of relatives and friends and light a candle or add a piece of wood if there’s a fire that’s already burning. Lighting a candle is a challenge in the windy conditions – it is normal to put the candle inside a bottle or hide it against a wall so the wind cannot get to it. My dad’s tomb is at the upper part of the cemetery, and is separated from where my paternal grandparents were buried. It is however, adjacent to where my maternal grandparents have been laid.
I normally visit the tomb of a cousin who died as a teenager before I was born– his family resides in Tabuk, Kalinga and there is no one to visit his resting place during this time of the year. I rarely find it unlighted though, there’s most likely a candle that’s already there, or a small bonfire that’s burning. This would have been an act of kindness by a town-mate who probably was passing by and seeing the tomb un-attended, cared enough to light a fire.
It’s been a long time since I spent All Saints Day in Sagada. The bonfires I’ve seen in past years however still burn brightly in my mind.