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Death in pre-colonial times

By: Jobers R. Bersales November 01,2017 - 09:48 PM


The visitor to the Vietnamese countryside, away from the bustling cities, is wont to notice a small number of tombs here and there amid seemingly endless rice fields. It’s my second or third time here; and I never cease to imagine if the Philippine landscape, at least in the rice planting regions, would have looked like this had we not been colonized by Spain. The French did colonize Vietnam but Buddhist and native religious practices survived probably because the French recognized the local monarchy, the Nguyen kings, whose tombs are a favorite tourist destination in Hue.

In the case of the Philippines, the zealous missionaries quickly spread all over the islands and stamped out all forms of native or indigenous practices, or so they thought. Without centralized authority in the manner of the Nguyen monarchy or those of the Maya rulers of Central America, small, disparate and often warring villages (“haop” or “gamuru” as they were called then) were easily brought into Spanish colonial rule and within a hundred years, precolonial beliefs were already subsumed, supplanted and replaced with Catholic beliefs. Fortunately, we have some glimpses of how our pre-Spanish ancestors treated the dead from Spanish missionaries who wrote down what they saw in the late 1500s to the 1600s. Albeit highly biased in favor of the Catholic faith (often labeling native practices as “demonic” or “the work of the devil”), when read critically, they do help us imagine the world in which our ancestors lived and died.

Two Jesuit missionaries, Pedro Chirino and Ignacio Alcina, who were at one time based in the Jesuit mission house in Cebu in the 1600s, wrote on the “Pintados,” the tattooed peoples of the different islands of the Visayas. More often than not, this and a handful of other reports, often called “Relacion,” is what archaeologists refer to when faced with burials that are dated to the late precolonial period, usually between the 1400s and the 1600s.

In Chirino’s “Relacion de las Islas Filipinas” published in 1601, we learn that funeral dirges called “kanugun” (Cebuano “kaanugun,” lament) were then composed by persons of literary skill, for the wealthy. These dirges detail the accomplishments of the deceased, which were then chanted or recited by women who were called “parahaya” amid much wailing. Spouses of the deceased were then required to shave their heads and pluck their eyebrows as a sign of love. Alcina, in his multivolume work “Historia…de las Islas e Indios de Bisayas” dated 1668, writes that if the dead were a village chief or datu, silence was imposed throughout the village. Laughing or showing signs of happiness was forbidden, the violator of which was fined in gold or will be enslaved.

The body of the dead was then washed and applied with perfumes and storax and other resins from trees, especially the sap of the “buyo” (Areca) palm, which was also poured into the mouth and inside the body. The “buyo,” to the uninformed, is of course an important element in the making of betel nut chew (“mama” or “nganga”).

Death was clearly also a period for losing weight, at least among the immediate relatives. Alcina wrote that the widows/widowers and orphans as well as other relatives of the dead were required to fast and could only eat vegetables in small amounts. No meat was allowed them during the mourning period. This contrasts sharply with the norm for those not related to the dead: food and drinks are offered. And if the dead were a datu, tuba, the coconut toddy, flowed endlessly for guests, as were pork and other food items.

Then as now, the dead were attired in their finest clothes, called “saput.” But unlike today, our precolonial ancestors were laid in a coffin, also called “lungun” then as now; but before they were placed inside, a white blanket serving as a shroud was placed over the body, the number of blankets depending on the wealth of the person, reaching up to ten in some instances. Around the area of the mouth, a slit was made on the shroud or shrouds, as the deceased would come back to ask for food if this was not done, and a “paganitu” (ritual) would have to be made, which would require the preparation of large quantities of food. The “lungun” of the rich were often made of hardwoods, which would be made out of a tree felled from the nearby forest once death ensued — or the rich could prepare this days or even years ahead. Slaves and the poor were often wrapped simply in “amakan” (woven bamboo strips).

Inside the coffin, the body of the rich was laid with the best of gold ornaments and precious jewelry, according to the Spanish official Antonio de Morga, writing also in the early 1600s. The eyes and mouth were also covered with pounded gold sheets, while more gold pieces would also be placed inside the mouth. At times, while shrouding was in progress, gold pieces and gold jewelry would be tucked here and there in between the blankets.

The weapons or tools of the deceased, male or female, would also be interred with them. Because of the pervasive practice of slavery, some of the dead would also be accompanied by one or many slaves. Chirino, in fact, recalls that a few years before the Jesuit mission started in Bohol in1596, a village chief had died and was buried on a native boat, with about 70 armed slaves who were sacrificed to accompany him, complete with the food, presumably in ceramic dishes.

Among the wealthy or the elite, before the deceased was taken down from the house and before the lungun was closed and sealed for the last time, a ceramic plate or dish would be placed under the head as a kind of pillow or cushion. Such plates were considered “bahandi” (wealth) and also “karaan,” something old, having been “handed down from ancient times.” Alcina writes that these plates were dishes that were so valued that even for Spaniards like him these were just too heavy and bulky although of fine workmanship and in “demi-relief, while others were painted.” The value of each of these plates was the equivalent of 8 to 16 pesos in silver or gold at the time of Alcina’s writing.

Some five to six centuries later, many of these burials were systematically looted, the information lost forever. Fortunately, a number have been excavated by archaeologists which indeed confirm the veracity of what the missionaries had observed. As we visit our dead today, may we remember those who passed on ahead of us, ancestors whose identities are now lost in the mists of time.

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