Leaving Lola – Part 1: Staying Up

Part 1 of 3

by Leonard

Reese said, “When you are there, you should blog about funerals in the Philippines” and I first thought, “Wow, that’s sort of a morbid subject”. Little did I know that funerals in the Philippines can be emotionally lush and symbolic celebrations, especially if the person lived a long life — like my Lola did.

Eden Bicomong Punzalan

When I heard the news, I was doing my share of door duty at People Power and in the blink of an eye I was packing my things – my Lola – the matriarch and our last link to her generation -had passed away. My whirlwind trip ended 40 hours later at my family’s ancestral house in Alaminos, Laguna Province — amidst a flurry of tears and painful embraces.

Why had we not gone to a funeral home? Upon entering the house, there was my Lola’s coffin, she inside, dressed in pina, jusi and pearls, surrounded by roses, sampaguitas, blessing cards and the people who loved her. The funeral was in a few days and until then, we would stay with her body here in the house, on the land she has lived on for almost a century.

“It’s Made In the USA,” said Tyrone, an uncle that I was just meeting right then and there, pointing at the sturdy chariot. “That’s why it’s more expensive.” (Apparently, I’m not supposed to call him Tito Tyrone, because he’s not my direct uncle, but a cousin’s cousin of my mom. “Tito” as a term of respect for elders is purely an immigrant creation that created community in a lonely new land.) More relatives would stream in, most of whom I had met when I was a baby, to others I thought I had never met before but whose features were strangely similar to my own… “I’m the eldest son of your Lolo’s younger brother — your distant cousin. I used to take care of YOU.”

Funny enough, they told me that I looked a lot like my Lola when she was smiling or laughing.


And they stayed late into the night, praying, singing songs, exchanging memories. They came from the city, but mostly they came from the “lupa”, the land that my family has owned since the 1800s when friars parsed and distributed it to only a lucky few, thus setting the stage for the class divisions that are still present in the Philippines today.

This was rich land, before Dole and Del Monte ravaged it’s pineapples and mangoes, putting its bounty in tin cans to be sent (ironically) to North America where unaware kids like my cousins and I could snack on fruit cocktail as part of our brown bag lunches along with sandwiches and other bologna.

It’s also land where not only coconuts and lanzones grow, but also children… poor ones with parents who work hard for little money and can’t pay rent or a mortgage, and so rely on the goodness and compassion of others, like my Lola. Others might call them squatters, but if they are here tonight, they are family — and they are crying and praying too — they have lost someone with qualities that are now too rare in this day and age.


This is Juan. He and his family live on the very edge of the Bicomong-Punzalan land which backs right on to the makeshift houses on the ‘riles’. His family was doing odd jobs around the property when he was born — totally blind. “Lola took care of him, that’s why he is here all night”, said my mother. “She took care of a lot of people by giving them an honest day’s work — even when the work didn’t necessarily need to be done”.

Why would you pay for work that didn’t necessarily need doing? And what was the work arrangement? “They didn’t ask for payment,” said Mom. “But your Lola always tried to take care of everyone. She knew that we couldn’t live without them, either.” I guess this is how the ecosystem works — when you are blessed, you should find a way to share the blessing. You don’t choose your lot in life, but you sure can do good with what you have. “Your Lola was too generous.”

And that’s how it was, night after night. Staying up and making sure that there was always someone to keep Lola company. Sometimes the room was abuzz with memories and stories and sometimes the silence was deafening as the reality set in that we wouldn’t be seeing her for a long while. Here, there is no attendant to tell you and your guests to leave. No one to lock up and tell you to come back tomorrow at 10am. Just an open door, welcoming you in at any hour you want to arrive — any hour you want to pay tribute. This is NOT North America where we impose business hours on mourning and so we stay up.

Sometimes, I even found myself being the last and only one awake. I’ll admit, I felt a bit like “Johnny” in a scene from Ang Pamana. I’m happy to report that I saw no mananangals… but I’m sure there was a ghost or two present — good ones.

I suppose that this is what the tradition is all about – you don’t leave the body, and the spirit never leaves YOU.

Even in death, we take care of each other.

CLICK HERE to read PART 2 of Leaving Lola – Walking with Ghosts


~ by Leonard on May 16, 2008.

5 Responses to “Leaving Lola – Part 1: Staying Up”

  1. Funerals in the Philippines are in a class by themselves. I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you were able to have lots of moments to yourself to remember your Lola.

    I remember helping organize my Mom’s Lola’s funeral. She died around election time in 1998. Besides the many people who loved her for her work in the Church and as the town doctor’s wife and the local pharmacist, there were trucks of campaigners who came everyday during the week and a bit we had her in the house.

    It’s a crazy time, waking up at 5 am, if you’re not already staying up with Lola. And going to market everyday to shop for food to feed everyone who is sharing in your grief and your memories. It’s also a special time because you hear stories. So many stories and you wish people would remember to tell the stories during happier times too. But you’re too busy making memories then to relish the ones you’ve already stored away.

    I hope you got to hear lots. I’m sure she was listening too.

  2. Thank you for sharing Len. I have yet to experience “going home” for the sake of remembering a loved one who’s passed…. but no doubt it is often the main reason for balikbayans to come home.

    I’m glad you had an opportunity to say goodbye… and that you pay tribute to her. She sounds like an amazing woman and I have no doubt that she felt your presence and was happy to have you there.

  3. Thanks guys!

    My intention wasn’t really to post a memorial or a obit on the kpc blog though, but thanks for the wishes. Sorry too if anyone thinks this is too personal.

    There bright side of a trip like this is that you get to experience more of the Philippines’ and the true heart of the people, and that’s really the part I want to bring home to all of you.

    Despite the political situation, the party atmosphere in after-dark Manila, the aircon redundance of mall after mall after mall… it seems to me that the deepest soul of the people is still there, and going there under the most tragic circumstances are the times when you really can learn the most.

    I’d say, of all the times that I’ve been and having been to places like Intramuros, Vigan, Panay and Quiapo, I learned the most this time about what the Philippines is all about and how I’m connected.

    And for the first 9 days, I barely left the town of Alaminos

    So yeah, this wasn’t meant to be a memorial really, but more of an essay (?)…

    trust me, it gets even more interesting.

  4. Amazing piece of writing Len, my sincere condolences I can’t imagine.

    And yo, no need to apologize if its “too personal”, I hear that alot from other Filipinos and honestly its bull, there’s so much fake in our society its nice to hear a genuine story with genuine emotions involved; it reaches further. Plus everyone can relate in some way.

  5. 🙂

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