Jumping the Tombs

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For me, memorial parks are more like golf courses: manicured lawns, sprinklers, the reception area with marble floors and columns. The memorial park is like a slice of white-picket-fences America, lined with stunted and balding alder trees to give the burial grounds a more suburban, refined feel.

Before all of this, though, there was the venerable sementeryo.

I’m never sure about what to call “cemeteries” in the Philippines: as with a lot of things here, the Western ideal takes a whole new meaning. The Filipino graveyard is as much about life as it is about death: people do live in shacks in the graveyard, mausoleums become homes for caretakers and undertakers and gravediggers and their families. On All Saints’ Day, the land of the dead becomes everything in the land of the living: a marketplace, a picnic area, a park, a playground. A casket can become a photo booth (or at least one enterprising funeral home thought of that brilliant idea), just as the tombs in the front of the cemetery become sari-sari stores.

Far from the “Six Feet Under” feel of memorial parks, or notions of “the family plot.”

Most of my relatives are buried deep in the heart of the Baguio City Cemetery: a graveyard carved right on the side of the mountain. Like Baguio itself, the place sprawls: there seems to be no sense of order or direction in the place. To get to the resting place of my grandparents and my uncle, you literally have to jump the tombs: along them, across them, between them, over them, until you find the simple shelter that, at least in the afterlife, my relatives call home.

When I was younger, my parents always insisted that we kids shimmy along the narrow pathways between tombs when we visit Lolo and Uncle. Jumping the tombs is tantamount to sacrilege. Leaping over the bodies of the dead was to desecrate them and to mock them. Some families were too impoverished to get a proper tomb, and often the body is marked with a simple concrete slab sunk on the ground. Families with proper tombs take care to keep people from stepping on the fresh white paint. Crowded and disorderly as the city cemetery was, the unwritten rule was simple: jump the tombs, but never step on them.

When I had a unexplainable case of delirium as a kid, at least one albularyo – yes, living in the cemetery – blamed it on me jumping on the tombs: the dwende are after you, he claimed, for I disturbed the spirits and they were after revenge. It could have been anything: the nuno sa punso, the grave of a dead child, or not crossing myself knowing that a priest was buried in one of the graves we passed by on the way.

Yet over the years, so many other diseases and maladies were to be had visiting my kin’s graves: rashes from giant hairy caterpillars, sprained ankles from slipping on overgrown weeds, knocking my head on so many roofs and beams. By then, I stopped tagging along to the sementeryo: not for fear of dwende, but opting instead to light a candle for the departed at home.

For all the inconveniences of the typical Filipino sementeryo – of nitso and “condo-type” tombs and ataul-selfies and such – I would still prefer to be buried in one. Only because Indiana Jones-slash-Super Mario jumping spree to get from one grave to the next: it’s much more fun that way.

It kind of gives me a bit of incentive to spook children who jump on my tomb, too.

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