On Death, Dying and Filipino Funerals

Around ManilaCoachingVolunteering
January 6, 2011

In accepting this cancer work, I knew that facing loss was part of the deal . . . although part of me was hoping I wouldn’t have to deal with it so soon.  Sadly, I lost my first cancer client last night at 6:55 PM.  And even though I mentally prepared for that moment, it still hit like a major blow to my heart.

Magne (pronounced like Maine, the state) was one of the women I got to know and coach through Carewell.  She and I took an instant liking to each other, so much so that even after I stopped doing group coaching there, she still came over to my house several times a month for private coaching.

She was an amazing advocate of my coaching and knew that cancer coaching was ‘my work’ before I even realized it myself.  Even with stage 4 cancer her light couldn’t be dimmed!  The photo above was taken in April of 2010 when we were spending the day with Carewell friends in Bulacan.  Even 8 months ago, while the cancer was ravaging her body, she still looked like the picture of health.  And quite honestly, that was her legacy.  She made cancer look easy and she helped all those who were ‘new’ to cancer to believe that they could handle the fight.

One of the unique things about Magne was that she was frequently surrounded by her family.  They always traveled in a pack and I came to expect that each time she showed up at my house to be coached she’d bring anywhere from 2-5 family members along with her to ‘listen in’.  It was strange but I tried to roll with it.  The ones I came to know best were her daughter Nadine (pictured on the left), her son Von (not pictured) and her grand-daughter Annika (pictured right).  The family-togetherness sounds extreme, but I promise you, it’s actually quite the norm here.

When the text came last night telling me that she died, (yes- I found out by text, how strange is that??) I immediately felt the need to connect to her family.  Fortunately, the wake was scheduled for today (Thursday).  In the process of mourning my friend/client, I got a fascinating education on how death and dying is celebrated in the Philippines.  Here’s a deeper look into my experience over the last 24 hours:

At first I intended to go to the funeral, but the only information sent out was regarding the wake (again, by text), so I assumed that perhaps it was a family-only funeral.  What I didn’t realize was that the wake extends over a 72 hour period (unlike our 2-4 hour evening wakes in the States) and visitors are encouraged to come and spend extended time with the family.  It actually makes a lot of sense, given what I know about their All-Saints Day celebrations at the cemetery.  The whole event was centered around celebrating her life with all the things Filipinos love best – Food, Family and Fun!

The Funeral Home was a series of small chapels in which each family had their own private space, which was roughly the size of a large living room.  There were approximately 20 wakes going on at the same time, so people were streaming in and out all day long.  Everything, including the Funeral, takes place in this small room.

I had no idea to expect when I walked into the chapel.  As expected, I was the only non-Filipino there, but within a matter of seconds I was surrounded by smiling faces and being encouraged to eat.  I had the honor of spending a good 45 minutes talking with Von, Nadine and Magne’s husband Danny.  It was comforting to know that she died exactly as she wanted to, with her entire family around her bed praying for her.  What I wasn’t expecting was for them to share all the details of her death.  It felt very intimate to know what it was like for her in those final moments, uncomfortable on one hand but also comforting to see a family able to talk about death so openly.

After about 15 minutes we went up to the casket where she was lying under glass.  We proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes standing in front of the casket sharing our favorite memories and looking down on her beautiful face.  The experience was such a stark contrast my past funeral experiences of moving through a family receiving line and then saying a quick prayer in front of the casket.  This wake truly felt like it was about her, whereas I’ve often felt like in the U.S. our funeral customs are more focused on being there for the surviving family members.  I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but this wake definitely had a different vibe to it.

There were a few moments that really stood out for me today:

  • Nadine telling me to come up and see her mom in her ‘angel dress’ (complete with rhinestones on the neckline!)
  • Getting to talk about Filipino death traditions and educate them on what it’s like in the U.S.
  • Being hugged and kissed by Magne’s mother who ignored the language barrier and just used non-verbals to let me know how much she appreciated me coming
  • Kuya Rudy telling me in the car afterward that he snuck in to see her when I was talking to the family.  He had driven Magne and her family around several times and I was touched that he felt the need to say good-bye to her as well.
  • Norma asking me if I wanted to take off my clothes right when I walked in the door so she could wash them (Apparently Filipino superstition says that after a wake you should not enter your bedroom until you’ve removed your clothes.  Isn’t that fascinating?)

I will forever be grateful that Magne came into my life, even though our time together was briefer than I would have liked.  She was pure sunshine and her bright light will be missed by many, including me.

~Rest in Peace Magne, I know you’ll be a great addition to Heaven.

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  1. Katrina Buetow says:

    What a wonderful and interesting experience Sarah. Thank you so much for sharing it all with us! Magne sounded like a very well loved person by her friends and family. Take comfort knowing that you now have another angel looking over you.

  2. diplowife says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I am very sorry for your lost, I am sure wherever Magne is now she is very happy to know that you miss her and love her. I am not sure if anyone has told you this, but back there at home where heaven is a big part of our beliefs, people often say that when a love one dies you are sure that you have now a special angel who especially guides you.
    Thank you for always citing Filipino cultures in your blog, locals like me really appreciate your inputs. I have never been to an American wake (I wish I never have to though), but from what I watch from films they are very different from the ones we have there as you now know. And yes, like everything else it is about the family. But it is also very much about the person who passed. My favorite thing about our funerals and wakes (lamay in Tagalog) is that since it lasts, as you mentioned 2 to 5 days, relatives and friends get a chance to come from far and wide and share stories about the person who passed away. It is a time to learn about your family, a time to reflect on the past, and get to understand how things are the way they are. And you know a lot of times, it is a great time for a reunion, especially for ones who haven’t seen each other for years, and sometimes bridges are mended, another thing I like.
    And yes, there are a lot of superstitions revolving around them too, like did they tell you about how you should not go straight to your house when coming from a funeral because spirits might follow you home? So you should stop by some place else to lose them first before heading home. Or that you shouldn’t take any food at home. There is more of those even I don’t know all of it, and if you follow them all, you might never live the same way again.
    But kidding aside, like anywhere else in the world, death is always something very dark but very educationally moving as well. Personally when I go I never come near the coffin, I rather remember the person who passed happy and well, than lying there lifeless. And not to sound disrespectful, but from someone whose been to many Pinoy wakes, I have yet to see a good make up artist of the deceased, they never look the same to me.
    Will you be attending the funeral? Because that is something of a moving experience as well. Although our long wakes are meant for the families to get ample time to process that someone has left them, funerals in the Philippines are moments where people are allowed to let go all grief, from crying to the most raw, unbridled, unrestrained bereavement.
    Anyway, again please accept my condolences, not just to Magne’s family, but to you who have lost a dear friend as well.

  3. sarahlynn60 says:

    Katrina- I’ve come up with a fun way to keep the celebration of her life going. At the wake, I asked her husband if I could invite her daughter and grand-daughter over for a day of fun some Saturday. They were all for it, so we’re going to do a pool/movie/pizza/game day in two weeks! I know she’ll be smiling down on us, as she would have wanted to make sure her family gets on with life too. :)

  4. sarahlynn60 says:

    I LOVE your insights Joanna – thanks for adding another rich layer to my understanding. So fascinating! I don’t think I’ll be attending the funeral, but I will be spending some time with the daughter and grand-daughter in the next few weeks.

  5. todra says:

    What you do is amazing. As are the opportunities it affords you to connect with others through something that affects us all – illness and family and LIFE. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  6. sarahlynn60 says:

    Thanks Todra! I appreciate your comments. :)

  7. Cindy says:

    I found your blog through Naomi in Delhi (she mentioned you because we are likely moving to Manila in a few months.) However, I had just had to comment on this post… I lost my mom last March to cancer, was with her every day, and found it to be the most difficult/rewarding/love-filled experience I have ever had. She was in a convalescent hospital in the states for two months before I took her home and all of the employees there were from the Philippines. It was amazing to me how loving and caring they were. I was so touched by them. I knew at that time that a move to Manila was a future possibility and I knew after that experience that I would be okay there. Anyway, thanks again :)

  8. sarahlynn60 says:

    Hi Cindy- Nice to meet you! I’m a big fan of Naomi, so I’m sure I’ll be a big fan of you too. If your move to Manila does in fact come about, feel free to ask me any questions you may have. Or if you just want to know now what you it’s like in the case that you can affect the decision, I’m happy to set up a skype call. We’ve absolutely loved it here and with the right attitude, you can really thrive. The people are what makes it so remarkable and you will find that your experience in the States is very representative of the culture as a whole. They are the biggest-hearted people I’ve ever come across.

    I’m sorry to hear about your Mom’s death, but I’m glad to hear you took that time to be with her. I’m not sure if you know it, but I’m a life coach for cancer patients. If the opportunity ever presents itself, I’d love to hear more in-depth about your experience in her final months and how it changed you. I’m fascinated by exploring the different ways we can be with death and dying. There’s so much choice around it!

    Excited to get to know you better. Just friended you on Facebook! Cheers, Sarah

  9. natalie says:

    Hi my name is natalie and im attending my uncles moms funeral in the morning. But she Filipino and i have no clue what to wear to the funeral or if i should offer food or flowers to the family. Can you help me before i go to this?

  10. Sarah Novak says:

    If I remember correctly it’s muted tones like gray and blue. It’s not the traditional black like the US. I’ve written my Filipino friend to get an exact answer for you. Hang tight…

  11. Sarah Novak says:

    Okay, I got more information. You can wear black, white or muted colors. Nothing bright. Bring food or flowers if you’re attending the wake, if just the funeral then bring a card or nothing at all. Hope that helps!

  12. mari says:

    Hello Sara im just wondering what happens to the surviving family members after death in the Philippinnes?

  13. Sarah Novak says:

    They are doing well. One of the great things about Filipinos is that they have an amazing sense of family and community, so there’s always someone to fall back on when something tough happens.

  14. Sweet story! I had a beautiful Filipino funeral experience myself. Amazing culture that we could learn a lot from.

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