Original Image by Siavash Ghadiri Zahrani via Creative Commons
My father-in-law died two weeks ago. He has been ill for quite a while until finally on September 22nd, his body gave up. My husband and I, with our son, spent the entire last week in Illinois in order to be with family as we honor the memory of our beloved Big Daddy.
We had to be around for the wake and the memorial service. Apart from those, as Filipino Catholics, there was also a funeral mass, as well as the nine day novena. Starting from the first night my father-in-law died, family and close friends gathered at my sister-in-law's home to say the Novena for the Dead for nine consecutive days. People not only prayed together but also brought food and gathered to comfort each other during this difficult time.
I have to admit that I'm not one who's big on traditions. I was not raised in that way and it probably did not help that I have a very practical mother and a highly logical father. We questioned a lot of Filipino-Catholic traditions and superstitions that didn't make sense and were encouraged to focus more on faith and spirituality rather than religiosity and custom. Bear in mind that I'm also a Sociologist and so there were a lot of moments when I found myself depersonalizing the experience and feeling, involuntarily, like an outside observer rather than immersing myself in the highly emotional event.
I found myself researching why a novena has to be said. Why nine days? I wondered if purgatory is indeed real although we are taught as Catholics that it is. I wondered if praying for the dead really made any difference to their souls. Is there a soul? What really happens to it? I believe we are all energy. Where does that energy go? Can it linger? Can it come back and in what form? Do we really meet others who have died before us when we die or is this merely something we conjure to bring us comfort?
There are no real answers that can convince me 100 percent at this time. It's all a matter of what I am comfortable believing. And the point is, it doesn't matter much, if at all, what I believe. What matters is this...
...That these rituals are not for the dead but for the living. We participate in them not to make the soul of the dead feel good about themselves. It is to affirm to us the kind of human being that person was and that indeed they will be missed as they vacate a certain role in our own lives.
We go through the rituals to ease the transition somehow. The act of interacting with friends and family when a loved one dies, the act of participating in conversations and being forced to talk about what happened, how it happened and all the details, serve as catharsis for those left behind. The repetition of stories cement the reality that indeed the person is gone, while it also helps cement the precious memories left behind to be cherished.
I had to be clear within myself that I was there primarily to support family left behind by Big Daddy. It didn't matter whether I believed the same things everyone else believed in. What mattered was the wishes of my mother-in-law, this strong widow left behind by her partner of 52 years. Her husband's death has shattered her to pieces. Hopefully, the prayers and most of all, the overwhelming show of support and love by relatives and friends can help mend her broken heart and fuel her spirit. That's what matters.
...That eulogies are spoken to highlight how the person lived and not how he died. And that is the only real point, isn't it? No person giving a eulogy will belabor the details surrounding one's death. What people spend precious time on are the pertinent events that defined the dead person's life. In this case, more than 300 people will remember Big Daddy as a great cook, a real family man who sacrificed a lot to create a comfortable life for his family; a hard worker; a patriarch who spoke very little but remained respected by his younger siblings and the whole clan. To me, he will always be the man my husband warned me about the first time I was going to meet him. AJ told me not to be scared of him even though he may sound angry. "He just has a loud voice and might seem scary to you", AJ said to me moments before I was about to step into their house so he can introduce me to his parents. But when I finally did meet him, I was confused. I realized there was no such scary man I was warned about. Big Daddy smiled so pleasantly, spoke gently to me and seemed genuinely happy to meet me, although it was the first time. He made me feel comfortable and very welcome and that will always be a memory I will treasure.
When we die, not all of us will have hundreds of people mourning us. Some of us might, while some of us will only have a handful. But as long as we are certain we knew how to love and was able to touch the life of even just one human being we are leaving behind, then we can leave in peace.
Death never defined a human being. Life does. What matters is not how we leave, but how we live and love. Death only takes away possibilities. Hopefully when it's time for any of us to face death, we can be at peace knowing that we've taken full advantage of every possibility there was for love. That's what matters most.