The Catholic Church used to scold its faithful. The day to remember loved ones, priests say, is November 2nd, All Souls Day not the 1st, All Saint’s Day. But no one listens. Once a year, they venerate the dead as they would saints. They share stories, recalling the beloved’s act of kindness or generosity. He or she, they insist, was hardworking, patient, strong, smart, beautiful, truthful, genuine, generous to a fault, dependable, special. They repeat these same accolades year after year, as each family member nods and smiles approvingly and affirmatively. Yes, they were very special, truly one of a kind. What a loss, they would say.
No one dares speak about weaknesses; or the time when the person was unkind, stubborn, arrogant or rude. No one talks about the arguments they had had, often leading to months of not speaking to each other (it’s a Filipino thing). It’s as if their faults had vanished along with decomposition, and all that’s left buried beneath the earth are the remains of a saint who so suffered for the world. Naturally, they ought to celebrate in their honor. Forgiveness.
But despite the festivities, I was always afraid of being around death. I hated wakes and funerals. I still shudder at the faintest smell of roses and plumerias. I find cemeteries chilling and morose. The thought of death scares me.
BY LOY BERNAL CARLOS
FROM THE RIVERBANK
OUR BELOVED SAINTS
I’m fearful not so much of darkness, but in death’s absolute finality. I’m afraid of dying as a man with potential that could no longer be fulfilled, of having had–but largely missed–the opportunity to be kind to someone and to do my part in making the world a better place, if not for all, then for some. I’m terrified of waking to find myself obsessing to be the best, yet failing miserably to be simply good.
What I fear most is that with my last breath, I shall remember not the faces of those I loved, but the faces of those whom I let down. The irony is that those whom I have forsaken may very well remember the opposite and, along with those whom I loved and those who loved me, shall celebrate my life anyway. Thus I understand the appropriateness of honoring the dead on All Saint’s Day.
Death has a way of making us neither saint nor sinner. Our ashes soon become indistinguishable from, and inseparable with, the earth. But if we’re lucky, long after our bodies are laid to rest beneath that little plot of land, family members will gather once a year to recall all the heroic–both true and imagined–things we’ve done. And that’s as special as most of us will probably get.
Bodies wither and die. Souls may transform. But saints live on, deep in the memories of people we leave behind, hiding behind beautiful sunsets and floral perfume.