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Folk beliefs that deal with the dead

By BṺM TENORIO JR., The Philippine STAR Published Oct 29, 2020 5:00 pm

I grew up in a barrio that, to this day, is steeped in pamahiin (folk beliefs). These beliefs are usually associated with the dead. The passing of time has not erased some of these beliefs. Though many of these are ludicrous, some people in the neighborhood still follow them. Nothing to lose, they would say, if people continue to observe them.

Because most wakes in the barrio are held at home, relatives of the deceased are advised by the old folks not to leave the coffin alone in the middle of the night. A member of the family should be awake during the night’s vigil or else the remains of the dead would be possessed by a bad spirit called kabal, who would replace it with a banana trunk.

When my father passed away in 2010, a few of my friends from Manila who personally condoled with my family asked me this question: Why is your father holding a rosary in one hand and a folded P1,000 bill in the other? The rosary was self-explanatory. (Though it needs to be cut before interment so no relatives will follow the deceased to the afterlife. That’s according to the pamahiin.) As for the peso bill, I had to ask my mother. She told me that the money was the first abuloy (monetary donation for the dead) and it normally is placed in the hand of the deceased. What for? “Before the burial, it will be retrieved and be kept by a member of the family. It will never be spent for good luck.” I scratched my head and continued to love my mother.

When I was still a kid, I witnessed one weird pamahiin. It was an eerie sight when I saw how some men in the neighborhood cut a long rope and divided the pieces among themselves. I heard it was the rope used by someone to end his life.

My mother, who has a penchant for going to wakes and attending burials, does not believe in pagpag (the habit of going to a happy or well-lighted place after visiting a wake). So, we, her children, also don’t believe in it. Very few in the barrio believe in pagpag, actually. “The spirit of the dead will not follow you if you don’t do pagpag. The dead will more likely follow the light that leads to heaven than follow you,” my mother said.

Sometimes, I catch myself guilty of subscribing to some folk beliefs, too. Like when my 10-year-old niece Nikka died. The whole of Gulod was agog with the fireworks display on the street because it was New Year’s Eve. While outside there was revelry, inside our house there was grief. And my nephew Nikko went straight to his sister’s coffin, crying, greeting his sister “Nikka, Happy New Year.” Seeing Nikko’s tears fall unbidden, I cautioned him: “Don’t let your tears fall onto the glass top of your sister’s coffin. She will find it hard to locate heaven if you do so.” Nikko continued to cry on my shoulders. There was no dry eye between us that moment.   

When I was still a kid, I witnessed one weird pamahiin. It was an eerie sight when I saw how some men in the neighborhood cut a long rope and divided the pieces among themselves. I heard it was the rope used by someone to end his life. 

I gathered that each small piece of rope would be used as an amulet to attract good fortune, if not a good life. Many times, they would carry it with them when they went to a tupada (small-time cockfighting) or to a baklay or monte (a table game involving cards normally held at wakes). Some would even keep their own piece of rope in their pocket before starting a business. I am privy to how their lives are going now. But I’m not saying. 

In a hush-hush way, it is still being practiced to this day. I may find their act a desecration, but in a community where not everybody is given equal opportunity, some people hold out hope for a miracle that an amulet supposedly can bring them. 

Newlyweds who pass by a house where a wake is being held are told to alight from their wedding car to pay their respects to the dead — never mind if they are not related to the deceased. Swerte daw ‘yon.

Did I say that some households keep their houses unkempt for the duration of the wake? It is believed that if any member of the family cleans the house, misfortune will befall him or her. Same thing will happen if any member takes a bath in the house where there is a wake. And here’s more: the bereaved family is not allowed to say thank you to those who condole with them – or even bring their guests to the door when they are about to leave the wake – because it’s malas

Even the coffin has its own positioning. The feet of the deceased should be pointing to the door. But even this belief varies from one village to another.

Mirrors or glass partitions sharing the same location where the wake is held should be covered with a piece of cloth. This is for the living not to see the reflection of the spirit of the dead. That’s what the pamahiin says. 

Children are asked to wear red so the dead will not be able to go near them. Babies and small kids related to the deceased are lifted by the elderly and passed to the other side of the coffin, where stout men will catch them before transferring them back to their point of origin. The feet of the kids should not touch the coffin as they cross it in mid-air. This is done, according to the belief, so the children will not see the dead, either in their dream or imagination.

Elders can wear white or any color that is not bright during the wake, even after the burial. (As a sign of mourning, I wore black for one year when my father died.)

When the hearse arrives on the day of the burial, no family member should be inside the house when the coffin is being prepared to be brought to the church or the cemetery. Malas daw

A family member is also not allowed to be a pallbearer. Malas din daw. But neighbors can carry the coffin. Swerte daw. (If you watch the well-crafted satirical movie Dead na si Lolo, you will see more pamahiin.)

The minute the coffin is taken away from the house is the moment you will hear a small jar or a glass being broken on the spot where the coffin used to be. It is said that the sound is the send-off for the dead.

Death, like life, is mysterious. The pamahiin in my neighborhood proves it.

Illustration by Hersam Sato