Every year, starting from the end of October to the 3rd of November, Filipinos go on holiday to commemorate the people they’ve lost. All Saints Day (Nov 1) and All Souls Day (Nov 2) are dedicated to the dead, wherever they may rest. This holiday season is generally referred to as undas in the Philippines.
Knowing the history of undas and our tradition is one thing. Experiencing how Filipinos celebrate death first hand is an altogether different story. Death is a natural part of life, and even though it’s sad, there is still a person’s life worth celebrating.
Undas: Celebrating Death Through Life in the Philippines
A Brief History Of Undas
The Philippines is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Undas is yet another extension of that. While influenced by Catholic traditions, the date of celebrations is taken not from Spain, but Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, on November 1.
This is theoretically why it is more festive, as it mirrors Mexico’s day of the dead celebrations. Of course, the Filipinos have additions of their own. For example, the practice of leaving food for the dead was around even in pre-colonial times, a practice called “pag-aatang” in the Illocos region of the Philippines.
Other practices, such as the wax balls made by children from melted candles, are derived purely from pre-colonial beliefs on the cyclical belief of life and death.
Finally, Philippine studies professor Schedar Jocson suggests that the word undas comes from Filipinos’ tendency of shortening words to convey information quickly.
All Saints’ Day was derived from the Spanish holiday of the same name, known as “Dia Delos Todos Santos” in Spanish. This was shortened to “Undas” by Filipinos who struggled with the Spanish language.
Undas gives people the opportunity to bring their families, living and dead, together. For All Saints Day, people rejoice and gather, celebrating the life of their loved ones. For All Souls Day, people mourn them, and spend the day in prayer or silent recollection.
Undas In The 1980s
I have vivid memories of the stories my dad told me about growing up in the impoverished parts of Caloocan City. Days before undas officially started, preparations were already underway. In the last week of October, entire towns were bustling with activity, preparing for undas as if it was a fiesta. Amusingly, my dad referred to it as “The Christmas before Christmas.”
My dad and his family bury all their clan members in Manila North Cemetery. During undas, the cemetery was full of families, vendors, and policemen desperately trying to bring some order to the chaos. Kites would litter the afternoon sky like stars, as kids from all around town participated in kite fighting to pass the time.
My dad, a young boy at the time, would offer to help the local undertaker with whatever maintenance tasks were needed. For two pesos, my dad scrubbed gravestones clean of dust, gathered up melted candles, and helped keep the peace among the smaller children.
Also, if you’re curious about what they did with melted candles, my dad would heat then mold them into wax balls. These wax balls were then sold for additional profit. That was another strange aspect of undas. It was a very commercial affair, and many vendors took advantage of all the happy families by selling them flowers, candles, and food. They were in stalls all around the cemetery, shilling their wares.
On the way home from his adventures in the cemetery, my dad saw the neighborhoods filled with celebration. People were singing karaoke or playing cards, while the children would play with the wax balls or argue about the state of their kites after a day of kite fighting. My dad got home and finally fell asleep, with the sounds of revelry still going strong below him.
Undas In The 2000s
Decades later, in the mid-2000s, I visited the cemetery that had grown so familiar to my dad. We first arrived at my grandparent’s house where my dad caught up with his siblings or any other family friends and relatives who visited. After the reunion, it was off to Manila North Cemetery.
There were two routes we could take to get there. The first was the mundane trip by car, through the main entrance that was open to the public. The second route, in contrast, was far more interesting.
For being a city of the dead, it always struck me how alive the cemetery was.
This path led us through the slums of Metro Manila, where we entered seedy alleyways and climbed rickety wooden staircases within abandoned houses by foot. At the end of this path was a secret passageway into the cemetery itself.
The passageway was obscured between the “apartment-style” tombs, so unbeknownst to me, the walls of the alleyway we had entered were filled with the bones of the dead. As a child, I found the fabled “City of the Dead” terrifying yet somehow awe-inspiring.
Surrounding these beautiful resting places were the significantly less luxurious “apartment-style” tombs we had just walked out of. Jumping from tomb to tomb was a new generation of children, who I feared would somehow trip and join the thousands of dead that lay in the cemetery. Thankfully, they were much nimbler than I was, and they disappeared quickly.
For being a city of the dead, it always struck me how alive the cemetery was. Crowds of people from all walks of life could be seen for miles, at least to my child’s eyes. Vendors even set up stalls that sold the same food, candles, and flowers that my dad told me about.
Questionably, bagged goldfish and dyed chicks were now part of the merchandise. There wasn’t a single corner of the cemetery that wasn’t teeming with life. Of course, the tight crowds and tropical heat didn’t make things particularly comfortable, so first-aid stations were present too.
To my disappointment, kites were apparently banned a decade before I arrived.
After wading through the hordes of visitors, my family and I made our way to the graves of our clan. Our spot was right next to the statue of a depressingly young boy who had died in the late 1800s. I would give a name, but the gravestone had long worn it away. Once there, we laid out our picnic and started eating.
I bowed my head and prayed, because that was the least I could do to pay my respects to the dead.
In between all of these graves, we feasted on spaghetti and chicken laid out on paper plates. We sat right on top of the graves, after politely asking the occupants of course, then treated it like a picnic. Our spot was a bit hidden away from the rest of the cemetery, so we could enjoy a quiet merienda (late afternoon snack).
After our meal, our grandma led us in prayer for the Holy Rosary.
The entire process took thirty minutes, and I’d be lying if I said my kid self wasn’t tapping their foot impatiently. Still, I bowed my head and prayed, because that was the least I could do to pay my respects to the dead. After the prayer, we left some food for the departed, and then made our way home.
It is 2023 now, and we no longer visit Manila North Cemetery. My grandparents moved away from Caloocan City to live a quieter life somewhere else in Metro Manila. Instead, my family visits our grandfather’s grave, on my mother’s side, at the heights of mountainous Antipolo City. It is much smaller than Manila North. Even so, I sit down with my family to eat and pray.
But nothing made me feel more like a Filipino than celebrating undas in Manila North Cemetery. Ornate tombs housing veterans, presidents, and national heroes from the past were spread throughout the park, teeming with history.
Although my father and I are separated by generations, we experienced the same culture, spiritually if not literally. It doesn’t matter whether it was an impoverished boy from the 1980s getting lost in the cemetery, or a sheltered kid from the late 2000s staring in awe at the bustling crowds.
For as long as people die, the living will always find ways to cope with it. Undas is a historical tradition that helps the living come to terms with their own mortality. By acknowledging death as natural, Filipinos honor the lives they’re blessed with.