Catering at Death’s Door: A Filipino Memorial

I’m used to the doom and gloom of cemeteries. Wearing dark, dressy clothes and brooding was something I learned when I attended the funerals and memorials of family, friends and older relatives that have passed away. What started as a drizzle early that morning turned into downpour as my cousins, sister, and I drove into Himlayang Pilipino, a well-known cemetery found 30 minutes outside of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

The car slowed to a stop. In the middle of the cemetery, in the middle of the rain, stood a large white party tent covering several large tables and chairs and the spot of my grandfather’s grave. I tromped through the muddy grass towards the tent. The rest of my family soon followed. The girls wore bright pinks and teals while the boys wore their favorite Sunday polo shirts. As we greeted each other with a single kiss on the cheek, the caterers in the other tent rushed to get the food ready.

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My grandmother had arrived for her birthday surprise, which my family had planned to celebrate with a catered breakfast. Her birthday falls on Christmas Eve, and it was her wish to spend the morning breakfast tradition at the cemetery with grandpa. “Happy Birthday Lola,” I said after kissing her cheek.

This was the first time in a long time that most of my family members in the U.S. and Philippines were together to celebrate Christmas. We all wanted to be here with Lola on her first birthday and holiday season without grandpa.  In the Philippines, bringing the family together for a meal around the gravesite of a relative that has passed away is the traditional way to honor and celebrate the life of the deceased.

After saying grace, we chowed down on omelettes, spam ham and rice, a favorite Filipino breakfast combination. Everybody had a share of the pancit, a rice noodle dish that is always served on birthdays, since noodles represent long life for the birthday celebrant. Servers went around filling our glasses and offering coffee, tea, and juice packs. In the middle of the celebration, I found it a bit weird that I was sitting on top of other people’s graves.

Pancit is a traditional Filipino rice noodle always served on birthdays because noodles represent long life for the birthday celebrant. | Photo Credit: dbgg1979 on Flickr

Pancit is a traditional Filipino rice noodle always served on birthdays because noodles represent long life for the birthday celebrant. | Photo Credit: dbgg1979 on Flickr

Traditional Filipino breakfast with rice, egg, and spam. | Photo credit: Leslie

Traditional Filipino breakfast with rice, egg, and spam. | Photo credit: Leslie

We’re definitely going to be haunted by dead people, I thought. Shrugging, I dismissed the idea and helped myself to another serving of pancit.

My cousins and I sat at the “kids” table and chit-chatted about my cousin’s  rich girlfriend whose family owns the Filipino version of Macy’s, the new job in the business district of Manila, and debated upon what kind of alcohol to get for tonight’s Christmas celebration. Later, my cousins performed comedy sketches of famous Filipino talk show host. My sister and I just looked at each other and awkwardly giggled at the cultural references that went completely over our heads.

We wrapped up the festivities with the rosary, the only time that the morning took a solemn mood. Before leaving, I visited my grandpa’s grave one last time. White carnations and candles were placed on his tombstone, a scene I am most familiar with when honoring the dead. I’m not sure if grandpa was there with us as we indulged in our rice and spam in his memory, but I would like to think that he would have enjoyed having a party around his grave.

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