Pre-Covid my brothers and I alternated taking my mom to church on Sunday. The cemetery where my dad has been buried for eight years is on the drive home. After mass, my mom likes to stop there, clean off his gravestone, change the flowers, and greet him.
“Hello Honeyko,” she says to him. Honeyko is the nickname they had for each other over their 43-year marriage.
“Your daughter is here,” she says, as if my dad can only see her in the afterlife and not me. My kids always join us around the gravestone. “Say hello to Lolo,” she tells them. “He loved you very much.” (Lolo means grandpa in Tagalog.)
We don’t stay long. She usually gives him a seasonal greeting, Happy Birthday or Father’s Day, Merry Christmas, or Happy New Year. Then we say a short prayer, and goodbye until next time.
I used to worry that I was mildly traumatizing my children with these cemetery visits, especially when they would ask if Lolo was really underground and if he could hear us? But I don’t worry anymore. I came to understand that I can tell them the truth (he is underground, I don’t know if he can hear us). And it is more important for them to understand that death is a part of life and that those that came before us still mean something to us after they have passed away.
I was reminded of these visits as we approach Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. In the Philippines, as in many other countries around the world, it is customary to visit the cemetery on these holidays. People bring flowers, food and chairs like a picnic. They spend the days together with family, and celebrate mass or say prayers – historically, prayers for the dead in purgatory to be cleansed of their sins so they will be allowed into heaven. The meaning of these holidays has morphed over time. (The History channel has a good summary and timeline.)
As a parent and as a person, it can be difficult to navigate the wildly different interpretations and customs surrounding these ‘deathly’ holidays. Should we go to mass? Visit the cemetery? Should we go trick-or-treating and put fake cobwebs on our house?
My approach is to try to only do the things that have meaning, but honestly, I am still trying to figure that out. When we go to mass or participate in Halloween festivities, I try to learn and explain to my kids about saints and souls and community and family (and tooth decay) and why we do the rituals that we do. Sometimes the conversation isn’t about relaying facts, it is about questioning and wondering. By giving them some context and history, my hope is that they will try to figure out what matters and has meaning to them later in life.
So often these days it feels as if the world wants us to choose sides, Believe This and Do This, without much room for asking and learning why. As a peacemaker, I recognize the value in questioning and wondering, in at least trying to understand why, even if the ritual is not something I will grow to love or adopt.
Will my kids visit my grave to talk to me after I die? Will they go to mass and pray for my soul? I’m not sure, but I hope they will remember me and our visits and discussions, and that they will tell their future kids that I love them very much.