THIS morning, I was talking with a lady friend about a certain burial I will attend tomorrow—the interment, finally, of what’s left of the ashes of a man (let’s call him “Johnny”) who had died 20 years ago. My friend was so amused hearing about “what’s left of the ashes”, because, really, what we will be burying tomorrow must be only half of the ashes, as some (on Johnny’s request) had been already scattered in the sea. In fact, some of it was blown by the wind into the nostrils of his brother in law, an incident that has spawned jokes and laughter whenever it’s retold. “Now we’re together forever as his ashes are stuck in my lungs,” the brother in law would say, almost with pride that he has remained alive and healthy in spite of it.
So—what’s left of Johnny’s ashes was placed in an urn that sat for the longest time in the family’s living room. In fact, only recently did I learn—as I was helping the wife (“Brenda”) to redesign her house interiors—that that vase which I’d thought was purely decorative, sitting on a high shelf, actually contained her husband’s ashes. “Whaaaat?” I exclaimed, incredulous, “You mean, all the hundreds of times these past 20 years I’d visited you here, half of Johnny was there watching us?” Yes, Brenda said, sheepishly. Indeed, but why—I asked in sympathy.
Well, at first, she felt keeping Johnny’s ashes in the house helped her and her kids remain close. At first. Because later on, with the children growing up and finally having families of their own abroad, who remembers, let alone cares, about their father’s ashes on that shelf? Nobody. Not even Brenda who admitted it hadn’t even occurred to her to move the ashes to a more “sacred” spot in her house, like the makeshift altar where she keeps religious images, rosaries, prayer cards, etc. “What if the urn fell on the floor? You’ll sweep the ashes back into the urn and mop up the rest?” I asked, and, emboldened by the Vatican’s stand on these matters I added, “Beloved though Johnny may be, the house of the living is no place for his ashes. You already bought space in a columbary, put him to rest there.” They are Catholic and so Brenda didn’t resist; soon she arranged for the proper interment with Mass tomorrow, exactly the 20th anniversary of Johnny’s death.
As my lady friend laughed about burying half of Johnny’s ashes, she said, “Eh yung vice president nga natin eh, nakasabit pa sa leeg niya yung abo ng asawa niya! Pati mga anak niya, ano’ng say mo!” (So what about our vice president who wears her husband’s ashes around her neck? Even her children do, what say you!) Whaaaat?—again, I was aghast, especially since she added, “Hindi ba bawal iyon? Close pa naman siya sa Church, di ba? Bad example!” (Isn’t it a no-no? To think that she’s known to be close to the Church. Bad example!)
Our chat over, I wanted to validate what I’d just heard—at least from Google. After so many websites checked and double-checked, reading but dismissing the Leni-bashers, I found mainstream media reports—so it’s true, after all.
In a Philippine Daily Inquirer feature on November 6, 2016, Leni Robredo was reported to have visited on the eve of All Saints’ Day her husband’s grave, along with their daughters. What caught my attention was this rather sympathetic line: “All four Robredo women wore their identical gold pendants, with Jesse’s ashes resting delicately on their hearts.” A feature article in the Philippine Star on October 11, 2015 said in the same vein: “Every day she carries with her a part of her husband—the ashes in the locket of her necklace. As long as the locket tugs to her heart she feels Jesse. She’s guided by his example. The luminary that Jesse was is the luminosity that shines upon Leni. They are never apart.” Wow.
Love must be the motivating factor behind our attachment to our beloved’s remains. I know of a religious man who so loves and reveres his deceased mother that he keeps part of her skull in the glove compartment of his car. (In his car! Not even the living room! Bah, what’s this?) Then again, a friend of a friend also told me she keeps a piece of bone from her beloved deceased father not only because she wants him near but also because, she said, “The bone is bluish. I’m told it’s rare, and that it’s a sign of nobility.” (Did I hear the alarm buzz! Talk about love for the dead!)
I also know of a man, a senior citizen who—in his younger wild-oats-sowing days had sired several children with three women now settled abroad—said in earnest to his broadminded wife, “Pag nauna ako sa iyo, i-cremate mo ko, tapos hatiin mo yung abo sa apat, isa sa iyo, yung tatlo sa kanila.” (If I go ahead of you, cremate me, and then divide my ashes into four, one part for you, the other three to them.) Without batting an eyelash the wife quipped, “Anhin ko yung abo mo? Sa kanila na lang!” (What on earth will I do with your ashes? They can have it!) True story, I swear.
I understand why people hold on to some remains of the beloved departed, and I also see that they do so because they are not reached by Church teaching to wean them away from romantic and prevailing notions relating to these matters. I myself wrote once—and it came out in print, mind you—that “I preferred to be cremated, and my ashes buried in the backyard, on which you (my family) would plant a coconut tree, so that I would still feed you long after I’m dead.” But that was written during my agnostic years. And I chose a coconut tree because my family loves buko salad. And that’s the truth.