I recently spent an amazing night at a cemetery.
On November 1, my best friend here – an All Hands mason named Richmond – invited me and my fellow volunteers Kamila and Zsofia to celebrate All Saints’ Day with him at his mother’s gravesite.
Richmond and I at his mother’s gravesite.
Richmond picked us up at the All Hands home base, and we hopped on a jeepney for a stop-and-start ride through the holiday traffic. Disembarking at a narrow, dirt alleyway, we followed a slender line of people down the crooked path between backyards. One large yard held a massive pen for fighting cocks. The brightly-plumed roosters stood placidly atop sandwich boards, unaware that they were destined for the ring, and likely death. Passing the pen, makeshift stalls selling slender tapers appeared on either side of the path. Families would melt the base of these candles onto the graves of their ancestors, and burn the tops to honor their relatives’ memory.
We popped off the narrow, dirt path onto this busy pedestrian lane.
We arrived in the cemetery as the sky turned purple. In America, cemeteries are places for quiet reflection. The atmosphere at CDO’s cemetery was one of a giant family gathering, with celebrants hailing relatives amidst chatting and laughter. The roads through the cemetery were closed to cars, and in their place, brightly-lit food stalls, selling everything from cornmeal pancakes to barbecue, lined the streets. We milled among the good-natured pedestrians, slowly wandering our way toward Richmond’s mother’s grave.
Candles light the way through the cemetery’s quiet dusk.
Turning off the main avenue, the crowd thinned as food stands gave way to headstones. Climbing an unlit stone staircase to the left, we stumbled over rocks and roots while approaching the family grave. This corner of the cemetery was quiet and dim, with conversations distant, and candles lighting the graves.
Richmond’s voice broke the hush. “My nephew is here,” he said. Sitting on a giant marble tombstone – at least ten feet long and higher than my waist – were Richmond’s nephew Niño, his wife Chrystel and their baby. This massive tomb neighbored that of Julie Ruiz, Richmond’s mother. Her grave was small, square and set into a wall with many similar stones. One by one, Richmond, Kamila, Zsofia and I each lit a taper and placed it at Julie’s grave. Then, turning to the tombstone that would become our picnic blanket, we introduced ourselves to Richmond’s extended family.
Resting in peace.
Cuddling their two-year old baby Yasmine, Chrystel and Niño shared their story. In simple but excellent English, Chrystel explained they had lost their eldest daughter to Typhoon Sendong. Their nine-year old had been visiting Niño’s sister when the flooding began. Together, the girls were trapped in a first-story room, unable to escape the rising river.
Chrystel was heartsick that, in the dark and crowded cemetery, she couldn’t find her daughter’s grave. It was hidden among the many the city had erected memorializing Sendong victims. Looking both resigned and hopeful, Chrystel said “I hope to return tomorrow to look some more. Maybe I will find it then.”
Chrystel, Nino and a sleepy Yasmine
Conversation moved to lighter topics, as the six of us chatted about our lives and families. A food run produced battered, deep fried hard-boiled eggs with hot sauce, deep fried fish nuggets, and many puso – portions of cooked rice wrapped in cubes of woven bamboo leaf.
The food gone and the baby sleeping, talk turned philosophical. “If you could do anything in the world,” I asked Richmond, “what would it be?” He studied me for a moment before saying, “I would travel to visit all my friends of the international volunteers. Oregon, Slovenia, Canada…” I nodded, feeling unfairly blessed to be able to travel and to meet people like him. “If I could do anything in the world right now,” I replied, returning his gaze, “it would be exactly this.”
Our evening drew to a gentle close as I found myself drifting off atop the cool gravestone. Sliding from the marble and following my friends through the dark, we made our way out of the cemetery, through the quiet streets, to home.