EVER since former President Fidel V. Ramos permitted the Marcos family to repatriate the body of Ferdinand Marcos in 1993, the nation has grappled with the highly political and emotive question of whether the Dictator is entitled to be buried in the country’s first and only national cemetery, the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Heroes’ Cemetery. Many think that burying Marcos in what is widely regarded as hallowed ground is obnoxious and immoral. The family is determined to ensure it happens. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte, who has never hidden his close-ties with the Marcoses, nor his admiration for the late strongman, promised to grant the family their wish. There is every indication that he will keep his word. For Mr. Duterte the matter seems cut and dried. Marcos, he says, is entitled to his plot because as a former soldier he fulfills the necessary criteria. He is right. It is the rehabilitation of a reviled dictator that is wrong.
A cemetery for heroes strikes me as a peculiarly American concept. The Republic Memorial Cemetery, as the military reserve in west Bicutan was first called, was established in 1947 and given its present name in 1954 by President Ramon Magsaysay. This was a period when American influence on Filipino leaders was still remarkably strong. Since the Civil War, Americans have gone to great lengths to honor soldiers who died on the battlefield. After the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War of 1899 – 1902, the disinterment and repatriation of American soldiers who died in battle on foreign soil was enshrined in US legislation. It was a landmark ruling and a turning point in how Americans treat their fallen warriors. Today, civilian morticians working under the Quartermaster Burial Corps travel abroad to recover bodies of deceased military personnel for shipment home if the next of kin so wish. Otherwise, the remains can be interred in one of the many permanent American military cemeteries overseas. The United States is the only nation in the world to offer this privilege.
In London, there are cemeteries exclusively for Huguenots, Catholics, Jews and religious dissenters. But by and large, the people buried in London cemeteries come from all walks of life—whatever class and creed, career or calling. The high-born rest alongside with the hoi polloi, the soldier with the baker and the candlestick maker. The graves of over 170,000 British servicemen and –women, who died in action in the first and second world wars, are scattered in almost 13,000 different locations throughout the UK.
Kensal Green cemetery in West London, for instance, is one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished cemeteries. Walk past an assortment of Gothic tombs for English aristocracy, the famed English poet, Lord Byron, Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, father and son, two of the most brilliant engineers the world has ever known, and one comes to a simple memorial for hundreds who died in combat in the two world wars. One poignant inscription, for a young corporal killed at the age of 23 in 1915, reads: “[H]e died for honour and freedom.” But among the great and the good, there are also rogues, miscreants, migrants and ordinary folk who led quiet, decent lives. The whole spectrum of society is there. That is, I think, how it should be.
If we followed the disparate and jumbled example of Kensal Green cemetery, it would not matter a jot where Marcos is buried. But we have come to regard the Libingan ng mga Bayani as an exceptional cemetery. Over 45,000 soldiers are buried there. Joining them are a few Presidents, statesmen, and national artists. Many of these men and women died heroically in the service of their country. But this does not mean they led perfect lives. Many were just ordinary. Perhaps even ignoble. Like the rest of us, their pasts were checkered, their behavior sometimes virtuous, sometimes not. Yet all qualified, in one way or another, to be buried in this place. Ergo, we consider them all as heroes.
“The placing of the dead,” writes the British anthropologist Nigel Barley, “is never arbitrary. It is a clear act of classification and a statement of where they belong.” The Marcoses are intent on exploiting this maxim to the hilt. They could have simply buried him in Batac, Ilocos Norte. Instead, they waited for this moment, and for a more accommodating President, for two and a half decades. With their limitless resources and huge influence, the family will ensure their patriarch is accorded the honor, pomp, and ceremony they believe he deserves.
Let us imagine for a moment what this might mean: showy ostentation, fanfare, and gridlock. A grandiose funeral procession to rival those of Ninoy and Cory Aquino. The family, close and extended, will be joined by throngs of Marcos loyalists, politicians, military men, Catholic hierarchs, and celebrities. Local and international press and media will have a field day. Fueling the frenzy will be marching bands, paid mourners, girls strewing rose petals and singing Hosanna, or maybe corny renditions of Dahil Sa Iyo. The coffin itself will be draped with the Philippine flag. The procession will culminate in a 21-gun salute. Eulogies will drone on interminably. Given the Marcoses’ penchant for extravagance, the body will be interred in a palatial marble monument.
Such a flamboyant tribute will not be just for show, although it will effectively show off Marcos political muscle. It’s a calculated move intended to serve a distinct purpose. The Marcos dictatorship will appear exonerated and history will be whitewashed. The country has yet to recover the billions of dollars the family has stashed away. Thousands of human rights victims have yet to see justice. Burying Ferdinand Marcos in a place designated for heroes is one thing. Masking the brutal past is another.