Death and Philippine Tradition – This One is Personal.

In all the years I have spent in the Western Pacific, I have come to know what to expect when it comes to the culture and customs of dealing with loss of life here. I’m not saying I fully understand the whys, I just know how it all plays out.


This last week (May 13th) my wife and her 8 siblings lost their mother. Their children, lost their Lola. I lost a sweet mother-in-law. The neighbors, and many that knew her, lost a kaibigan (friend). One comforting thing in all this is that she went peacefully and without pain. She was 85.

Simply stated, the customs of the grieving process in the Philippines are well ingrained and very Catholic. Even families who do not attend church regularly or who may not be strongly religious will fall back on Catholic traditions at the time of a death. The traditions that surround death and dying have evolved from indigenous, Spanish, and American influences, and that makes Filipino traditions unique. Filipinos typically believe that the more emotions shown while grieving indicates the level of respect for that person. It can get rather showy at times, and this outward display of caring and emotion shows how much that person meant to a particular individual. Filipino culture holds that the longer the grief, the better, and it is not unusual to see a length of 9 days from day of death until burial.

When I first lived in Guam in the 70’s, my first ever experience with the culture of dealing with death was when I attended the visitation of a friends family member, at the home of the deceased. It was explained to me that we were to attend a nobena, or novena, where the deceased is laid out in the home and where over time, a series of devotional prayers are conducted. A customary novena is ‎a nine-day rosary and devotional. Out of respect to my friend, I agreed to attend this visitation.

When we drove up, there were many cars parked along the street and we had to walk about a block to the house. As we approached the house, I could hear much commotion. First I could hear the music. Then there was loud talking over the music. And the music…it wasn’t somber church music either…it was pop and rock music. There were tables and chairs set up under lawn tents. There was a big buffet table. There was even a roast pig. There were coolers full of beer and soft drinks. People were coming and going. The women sitting around at several tables were playing cards and Mahjong and the fellows were all gathered drinking beer and tuba (coconut wine) or whatever else got their fancy. My first crazy thought (I was only 20 years old) when I took it all in was could they be that happy that this guy is dead? So much so that they are throwing a wild party? People were talking and laughing, eating and drinking, kids were off to the side joking around and dancing to the music. I thought wow, this ain’t so bad…I could handle this. It was definitely not what I was expecting, nor had I’d ever experienced anything like it in my life.

When people live in a very close society, people will come together to mourn in groups rather than doing so in private. Family and friends are expected to come forward to support to the grieving family and not doing so is considered offensive to the family and the deceased.  Filipinos judge the life and stature of the deceased by the number of people gathered for the visitation (and funeral), and when people gather during visitation, there is very open discussion about the deceased and one’s grief. Here in the Philippines, there are no (or very few) nursing homes and while people visit hospitals when someone might be acutely ill, most people are cared for and die at home. Respect for the elderly has always been the mark of Asian societies and in the case of aging parents, the tradition holds that the aging are cared for by the oldest child.



When death occurs, a priest is summoned as it is very important that the body be blessed to ensure their passage to heaven. The body is prepared (usually by mortuary services) and laid out for visitation in the home. As word of mouth spreads, family and friends begin to arrive. No printed obituary is needed to get the word out about someone’s passing as word of mouth spreads the news quickly. Here, after death and before the burial – which can take between three and seven days – it is typical for the family to cease all personal business. Instead of working or resuming normal activities, the family cooks and makes other preparations for the visitation that is ongoing until the burial. Feelings of mutual respect are shown at visitations. While it is respectful to attend a visitation or prayer vigil, it is also proper for the grieving family to feed and provide activities to those who attend. As mentioned earlier, the life and stature of the deceased is measured by the number of people who gather for the visitation. And with some families, it can become a production of sort to ensure that large crowds are in attendance. After all, it is about respect and the more people attend, the merrier. Tents, tables and chairs are provided by the community. Food is donated, prepared, and at a minimum, snacks and drinks are made available to guests and visitors. And, similar to what I encountered in Guam, games and activities (and drinking) are common. (As a late edit, I found out that these games generate payouts whereby a percentage of the proceeds become an automatic donation to the burial fund.)

I know that mama was a hard-working woman, raising 1 son and 8 daughters, and for many years as a single mother (she lost her husband to a motor vehicle accident in 1972). She never remarried. I also have come to learn there are many grandchildren, some of whom I am still meeting for the first time after moving here nearly two years ago. I can’t even begin to name many of the great-grandchildren (although I have taken special to at least one!). I have also come to learn that one of her most cherished memories is when General Douglas MacArthur handed her a cookie when visiting Samar once during the war. (¹· he handed out cookies to all the children but she remembered it like it was just her.)

Mama's 82nd birthday party at the beach.
Mama’s 82nd birthday party at the beach.

Yesterday evening was the 3rd eve of visitation for my deceased mother-in-law, and when I left to head home, the tent filled with tables and chairs set up in front of the house was full of people playing cards and bingo. Inside, friends and family were praying or eating. My wife and her 7 sisters have stayed at the house since bringing mama home from her one week hospital stay a week earlier. They were all by her side for her passing and they will all remain with her there at her home until her burial on the 20th. Overall, it has been a long three weeks, which will include the 7 days of grieving. Respect for the elderly has always been the mark of Asian societies and after spending a good portion of my life in this part of the world, I have come to understand it much better. And I readily accept it. 

RIP mama.

Susana R. Monsanto -  1930-2015.
Susana R. Monsanto – Born April 22, 1930. Passed May 13, 2015.


1. Mama was so moved by General MacArthur’s cookie gesture, she named her only son after him…Artoro!( Arthur)


12 thoughts on “Death and Philippine Tradition – This One is Personal.

  1. Condolences to your family, Randy.

    Good story. Was always curious bout this.

  2. My condolances for your loss.
    I lost my dear mother in law one month before Mt. Pinatubo blew up in 1991. You covered the entire expereience my wife and I shared. Here in the Philippines on the day of Burial, the deceased is transported via vehicle while the majority of family, friends, and well wishers walk behind in the funeral proccession. First to the church, and then the long walk to the cemetary. Traffic along the way stops and is directed to pass slowly and cautiously around the funeral by those in the Barrangay Police. Different regions throughout the Philippines have slightly diffeerent traditions, but it is all generated for the Respect of the Deceased and the family.

  3. Maupay gayud itoñ basahon (great story) So enjoyable to read.

  4. condolences to both of you and her family. I myself got a chance to see and understand this great tradition and respect when my wife lost her mother.

  5. Thanks Roger. Deep rooted traditions are difficult to change. I only wish it could be shortened a little. After 5 days now, my wife is ready to begin the healing process and yet we still have three more days of grieving. And then I didn’t cover the 40 day anniversary and then the 1st year anniversary. :/

  6. My deepest & sincere condolences to you randy & your family,God bless.

  7. I understand it is a long process. Hopefully you and your wife can take a short trip for some relaxing and reflection after the funeral.
    it did help my wife for us to take a week and get away to relax after her mothers funeral.
    unfortunately my wife didn’t get to spend the 40 day ceremony but she did make it back home for the 1 year anniversary ceremony.
    we have also been there for the yearly cemetery event on the 31st of oct. a few times which is quiet a event in itself.
    Have a great day.

  8. In my opinion, these deep rooted religious practices create more grief and extreme emotions than necessary. But, it is what it is and we will bear with it until tomorrow, the burial. From what I have observed so far, the longer the remains stay at the home, the harder it is for the closest family members to finally let go. I’m hoping that, while the anniversaries will be some sad times to come, they will be filled more with cherished memories than with grief.

  9. Our condolences also Randy,
    The loss of a loved one is never easy no matter what their (the deceased wishes were). The problem lies with the fact that WE, (the survivors) are feeling the loss no matter what the circumstances of the death were. WE take it just as deeply if the death was sudden (as if in the case of accident) or prolonged (as in the case of a terminal illness).
    Both of these instances require our remembrance of the attitude of our loved one concerning death.
    My father had had several light, but nevertheless frightening heart attacks so all of the family was aware of the possibility he could go at any time, but were still surprised when he did pass. What made it easier for me was the knowledge he was ready (and I suspect was aware of its imminence the night of his passing).
    When my mother passed, she had been ill for quite a long time (had cancer that went into remission and then reappeared many years later) but still outlasted Dad by nearly 20 years. but was active and sprightly until the last month.
    What got me thru the mourning for her was my knowledge that she had always been a very happy and giving person and would have wanted all of us to celebrate her life rather than her death.

    When my time comes, I’ll also be ready and have instructed Jessa and my closest friends not to weep or grieve, but to celebrate my life, my love of them and my life, enjoy my successes and failures alike and have the biggest and best party of their lives!

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