Tombstone histories

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RACHEL A.G. REYES

RACHEL A.G. REYES

In the compact hillside town of Liliw in Laguna, there is a small cemetery where many of the graves have whitewashed headstones. Painted on by hand are the names and dates of the deceased. Sometimes there are just the names. My maternal ancestors are buried here. In the run-up to November 1st , the day of Todos Los Santos, when families gather to remember their beloved dead, graves are spruced up and the air reeks with the noxious, tarry smell of fresh paint and turpentine.

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I have been visiting this cemetery since I was a child, and have relied on the memories of elder relatives to tell me something about the lives of the graves’ occupants. Great, great grandfather Esteban was a gobernadorcillo and his wife Amelia, I was told, gave birth to ten children. There is now nobody left who can recall their stories. I am also noticing that with each passing year, with each re-painting, the order in which the names appear on the tombs and headstones changes, and dates increasingly disappear. History is literally being whitewashed away.

For those who can afford it, stone, granite, or marble headstones might bear chiseled inscriptions. A person’s marital and family status, with a flattering adjective thrown in – a loving wife, a devoted husband and father, a dutiful son and so on, are all commonplace statements. If the deceased had a high status profession – doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect – this is invariably mentioned. There is less enthusiasm to carve out “sari-sari store owner,” “call-center worker,” “manicurist” and other common work-a-day occupations.

Filipinos who have cash to splash do not seem to favor epitaphs that are economically worded. Perhaps simplicity appears to be, well, stingy and austere. I’ve noticed an alarming trend in gravestones to be the size of billboard signs. The decoration is loud as much as extravagant. There is a discordant mix of Biblical verses, superimposed photographs of the deceased, an epitaph of cloying sentimentality, maybe the image of Christ or the Virgin, a sprinkling of crucifixes, doves and winged cherubs if it is for a child’s grave, and borders cluttered with curling tendrils. All this ornamentation says something about the modern tastes of the Pinoy nouveau riche, but sadly little about the personality and life of the deceased.

Tombstones didn’t used to be this way. Epitaphs in the past not only attempted to capture the true essence of the person, but also told us something of the everyday life that was led, commemorated achievements, celebrated long marriages, and sometimes, even, poignantly hinted at grievances and sorrows. Funerary inscriptions on Roman tombstones, as Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, has found, were marvelously and unabashedly descriptive. There was the hardworking woman depilator who lived in a harmonious ménage a trois, or the baker who eloquently related his profession and had his tomb fashioned into an oven. Ordinary citizens of the great cosmopolitan city of Rome – fishmongers, bakers, pearl-sellers, purple dyers, beauticians, freed slaves and former gladiators – etched a snapshot of their lives and personalities into their tombstones and, in doing so, provided an extraordinary social history of an ancient world.

Tombstones of 19th century English military men uncover the history of the British Empire from the front line. In London’s Kensal Green cemetery, the tombstone of Henry Charles Le Blanc, captain of the 51st Madras native Infantry, records his mundane end. He was home on leave for a few days when “his lamented and sudden death was caused by the falling of a wall at Paddington under which he was crushed.” He had been due to return to India in a few days. Buried nearby is Major General George Paris Bradshawe, who fought bravely in the Napoleonic wars, served in Jamaica, Malta, Corfu, North America, and the Spanish Peninsular, and led foot regiments that survived sieges, bombardments, assaults and capture. His tombstone was erected by his wife who, in all likelihood, did not see much of him. Then there is the tombstone for a speaker of London’s Temperance Society, whose friends authored the long epitaph and were remarkably profuse in their praise: he was a man, they write, of “eminent public service,” “practical sagacity,” with an “earnestness of purpose,” who had served the society for over 30 years with “unflagging energy” and “sacrificing devotion,” and who exerted a “powerful influence” upon various classes of London society. Then there was a mother who died at the age of 33 and was deeply grieved by her husband and the six children she had left behind.

These days, in general, wordy memorializations have fallen out of vogue in the West. A few words of comfort, a favorite quote, or a line taken from a song or a poem are about as long as they get.But epitaphs are a tremendously rich historical resource. That they are no longer written to reflect the personality and lives of the deceased is a great pity. The sad fact is, whitewashing of history can take on many forms. A life, however small and prosaic, is part of the story of a greater humanity.

As Virgil wrote:
Vixi et quem dederat cursum fortuna peregi et nunc magna mei sub terra ibit imago. Translation: My fatal course is finish’d; and I go, a glorious name among the ghosts below.

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1 Comment

  1. Your inclusion of ghosts is timely for Halloween. But as skeptics hold that ghosts do not exist, skeptics would be correct in maintaining there are no ghosts in Virgil’s Latin. Here is a closely literal translation: ” I have lived and the course fate had charted I have fulfilled and now the big image of me will go under the earth.” His “big image” would be of interest to history buffs who would glean an info about his size. Big and tall?