BUSAN, South Korea – Throughout history, regardless of time or place, people have always nurtured a fascination with death.
Despite cultural differences, we share a common desire to memorialize the dead.
While the reasons might be different, as not all cultures believe in life after death, humanity is united in its ritualization of death.
During my recent visit to South Korea, I was able to visit Tumuli Park or the Garden of the Great Tombs in Gyeongju province.
Gyeongju, the capital of the kingdoms of Silla (57 B.C.–935 AD), is dotted with impressive mounds of royal tombs whose occupants range from kings, queens, and princes to relatives and nobility blessed into the inner circles of power. These tombs have stood as symbols of political authority and cultural grandeur.
At first glance, the mounds resemble our Chocolate Hills.
Constructed of wood, sealed with clay, and covered with mounds of stone and earth, these tombs have a relatively impenetrable structure. The wood-lined chamber running east to west contains a lacquered wooden coffin of the royal family which has burial goods ( mostly gold) placed around it.
The tombs have preserved hoards of precious ornaments buried within, like accessories of pure gold: crowns, caps, belts, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and decorative swords.
In ancient times, Koreans believed that the world of the dead was similar to the world of the living.
The general practice was to carefully bury the deceased within graves that functioned as “residences” in death, without any alterations to the body.
Koreans had a strong faith in the principles of geomancy. They believed that burying their family members at auspicious sites would lead the deceased to absorb good spirits from the earth and the souls of the dead would, in turn, bring good fortune to the living descendants
The practice of building large mound-tombs and interring scores of gold ornaments gradually declined following the official adoption of Buddhism as the state religion. Instead, cremation became the standard postmortem practice.
The Philippines also had a wide variety of old indigenous burial methods or customs rarely practiced nowadays.
In Sagada, Mountain Province, the Kankanaey people placed their dead inside a carved wooden coffin in a fetal position with the belief that those who die need to leave the world in the position that they entered the world. These coffins were then stacked on top of each other in limestone caves or tucked into crevices in the wall of the cave.
In Kabayan, Benguet, the mummified body was displayed in their homes as a form of honoring them in the afterlife. The bodies were preserved through processes of dehydration and smoking.
In Apayao, the Isneg people buried the deceased underneath their houses or backyard as a way of showing their love and longing for the deceased.
The B’laans of Southern Mindanao utilized trees as their burial spots. The body of the dead would be covered with tree bark and suspended on tree branches.
In Palawan, the journey of the soul to the afterlife was closely associated by early Filipinos to maritime culture as represented by the “ship-of-the-dead” burial container called Manunggul Jar.
I saw the burial jars twice during my visits to two museums, the Palawan Cultural Center in Puerto Princesa and the National Museum in Manila.
The jars dated from 890–710 B.C. and were excavated from a Neolithic burial site in the Manunggul cave of the Tabon Caves at Lipuun Point, Palawan.
Early Filipinos believed that a man is composed of a body, a life force called ginhawa, and a kaluluwa (soul) which explains why the design of the cover of the Manunggul Jar featured three faces — the soul, the boatman, and the boat itself. These figures embody souls riding a boat for the dead while seafaring towards their sanctuary in the afterlife.
Many Filipino epics narrate how souls go to the next life and pass through the rivers and seas aboard boats. The kaluluwa, after death, can return to earth to exist in nature and guide their descendants.
Filipino ancestors respected nature as they believed that even things from nature have souls and lives of their own.
Due to Spanish, American, and Chinese influences, the most prominent contemporary practice of honoring the dead is by holding a wake that lasts from three to seven days, followed by a mourning period.
Catholic mourners say prayers such as the rosary for nine days after the burial, also known as a novena. They pray the rosary again 40 days after the death, and again on the first anniversary of the death.
Superstitious beliefs surrounding death are related to colors, dreams, etiquette, children, and odors among others.
Some people follow them merely out of tradition, while others genuinely want to avoid bringing more misfortune to the bereaved family.
(Peyups is the moniker of the University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail email@example.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.)