Crowded Cemeteries – Oliver Dy, SJ

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Were it not for two consecutive nights each year, the ambience of cemeteries across our native land would resemble that of scarcely populated isles. The stark difference would lie in the type of permanent inhabitants creating such aura of silence. One would be due to a few living humans, the other to the piled remains of the dead.

The word ‘cemetery’ is derived from a Greek term that means ‘to put to sleep’. The sleepiness of the cemetery is however not simply that of inert rest and repose, but a strange combination of dread and comfort. The inactiveness of the place is disrupted daily only by burial rites welcoming another body to the earth, or by the offering of flowers and lighted candles by a handful of visitors, or by the metallic clang of tools and machinery at the hands of the grounds’ caretakers. With a little stretch of imagination, the cemetery can be pictured as a ghost town – and this in more than one sense of the phrase.
However, as the month moves from October to November, different kind of spirit begins to invade this landscape of the dead.

It matters little to common Catholics that All Saints Day falling on November 01 and All Souls Day assigned to November 02 should be distinct liturgical celebrations. By force of longstanding custom, these two are simply conflated into a single celebration commemorating the departed resting in God as one so believes or hopes. Regardless, what is certainly observable is the prevailing mood of celebration during this time. Were it not for fairly recent prohibitions, the celebratory would border on the scandalous, and more so to the unoriented outsider. How can one ever justify half-intoxicated men reeking with liquor, karaoke singing on every other spot, and uninterrupted card games among gamblers? Thankfully, unlike earlier decades, we have become more civilized in our manners.

Still, the makeshift tents are everywhere, the crowd dense, the air thickened by heat and human sweat, the chattering incessant, and the food aplenty. This is definitely not an organized solemnity, but the raucous of family reunions simultaneously taking place under one open space. Transplant the scene to a beach, and it could very well witness a milder version of a grand weekend party along a tropical shore.

Yet there is spiritual profit in this festive chaotic occasion held over the graves of loved ones: it is the enacting and celebrating of ‘Church’ in its triple sense of the triumphant saints, the suffering souls, and the militant living. The bond of charity unites these three. Thus, the living and the dead share and make up a single communion in the Church.  Charity is made visible by the stream of multitudes gathering in the cemetery. There, would hear a blend of human voices of different local accents and languages scattered here and there as one moves through the crowds.

In a rather unusual way, the first two liturgical celebrations of the month of November can remind of the identity of the church as an ‘ecclesia’, that is, as the gathering of humankind into a single body enabled by the Spirit of the risen Christ. It is this Spirit that comes in the form of tongues of fire, bearing a warm message of charity for the redemption of all. This same Spirit prompts devout believers stemming from various parts of the lived world to overcome cultural obstacles within a broader vision that conjoins the saint and sinner, as well as the living and dead. If some only hear drunken speech, others blessed by the Spirit discern an intelligible proclamation of God’s promises in one’s own vernacular.

There is logic to the madness of crowded cemeteries during the days for all saints and all souls. However one may formulate it, it strikes the chord of Pentecost.

*from the website of the Philippine Jesuits

*image from the Internet

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