Filipino calendars usually mark the early days of November as the time to remember the souls of their departed loved ones by visiting their graves in cemeteries—a tradition shaped by indigenous beliefs and influences, according to a local historian.

The head of the studies center at Palawan State University (PSU), Prof. Michael Angelo Doblado, said that the design of cemeteries today is influenced by the time when Spain ruled the country.

Burials were traditionally performed close to or right next to the home of the deceased relative among the province’s indigenous peoples (IPs), most notably the Tagbanua and Pala’wan. After the first Filipinos were baptized into Christianity, the concept of a cemetery was born, he said.

In 1600, the first people in Palawan to become Catholic and follow Spanish customs were from the Calamianes Group of Islands. Doblado said that when Christianity came during the migration of the 1800s, residents on the mainland began to follow the traditions of the Undas and the idea of a cemetery.

“Mas nauna sila nag-practice ng kahalintulad nang pinapractice natin ngayon, around 1600s or later part, kasi nga sila ‘yong una. Dito naman (mainland), pwede natin sabihin na nasa 1800s na lalo na yong pagtatatag ng Puerto Princesa, 1872. Iyon lang, actually, ang pinaka first na conscious effort ng mga Kastila na ilipat, o pormal ang pagtatatag ng bayan ng Puerto Princesa, at pagkalat ng Kristiyanismo sa mainland,” he said.

The Undas is a shortened version of Dia de Todos Los Santos, during which Filipinos visit cemeteries, clean tombs, and prepare food, flowers, and candles. It is a practice similar to that of Mexico, which was also colonized by the Spanish.

Citing history, Doblado noted that during the Spanish era, cemeteries were typically located next to or behind Catholic churches on the theory that buried souls are close to the blessings of the church and the entrance to heaven.

It’s also the period when people started making a living off of the dead, like gravediggers, who are called sepultureros.

When the Americans came in 1900s, cemeteries were relocated primarily in outlying areas due to sanitation concerns.

“Kaya ang sepulturero, nagtatrabaho siya at ang nagbabayad sa kaniya ay simbahan o parokya. Kadalasan ay nasa tabi siya o nasa likod siya ng simbahang Katoliko,” he said.

The current economic climate necessitates workers of all ages to look for additional work during Undas in order to meet financial obligations.

Filipino tradition: Combination of indigenous and Spanish influences

Back 500 and 1000 years ago, the IPs in Palawan used both open sites and cave locations for burials. The body will either be placed in a coffin or buried with rocks stacked in the shape of a boat. Doblado said that after a year or two, the bones would be moved to a jar that is typically kept in caves.

He explained that even as customs changed, some of them stayed the same, like the tradition of leaving valuable items at the grave of the dead, which he said came from Tagbanua and Pala’wan. From what we know about history, Tagbanua and Pala’wan did not have their own cemeteries. However, as civilization spread, some of them are now buried in common cemeteries.

The mourning of the dead for several nights was not practiced by IPs, due to the absence of embalming. It is particular to the Pala’wan, believing that they should be buried as a whole like how they were born, he added.

“Sa [Tagbanua at sa Pala’wan], partikular yong mga Pala’wan, ang tawag [nila] doon ay ‘tala’. Paglalagay ng articles, mga kagamitan na mahalaga o paborito ng namatay. May pagpapatuloy, yong tinatawag natin na paghahalo ng indigenous natin na practices at itong Kristiyanismo sa Katolisismo,” he added.

The Filipino burial culture is a synthesis of numerous traditions that have developed over time. Doblado stated that it is influenced by a variety of factors and that these continue to be practiced today.

“Ang ating ginagawa ngayon sa Undas ay, actually, from [the] Spanish. May mga pagkakahalo rin, may kaugalian tayo na nagsasama ng bagay na mahalaga doon sa yumao sa paglilibing,” he said.

“Nagsisimula yan sa burol, lamay, sa mismong paglilibing, after libing meron pa tayong pa siyam, may 40 days, babang-luksa at taunan na natin, sa Katoliko ay pag-aalay ng misa. Kasama na yong paglilinis ng nitso, puntod tapos yong mismong pagpunta–kung saan halos lahat sila nagko-congregate,” he said.

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is one of the senior reporters of Palawan News. She covers agriculture, business, and different feature stories. Her interests are collecting empty bottles, aesthetic earrings, and anything that is color yellow.