By Norman P. Aquino, Special Reports Editor
and Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter
ELNA LEAH L. FONACIER, 64, lost her youngest brother last month to cardiac arrest amid a strict Philippine lockdown — one of the longest in the world — meant to contain a coronavirus pandemic.
She never got to visit him in the hospital while he was battling a chronic illness 34 kilometers away. She neither had the chance to say goodbye nor was she able to visit his family on his wake and during his funeral.
“We felt so sad because nobody could come to his three-day wake except his wife and children who took turns watching his coffin,” Ms. Fonacier said by telephone. “I cried for days inside my room. I felt so helpless because I couldn’t be with him. I also could not go out because I was at risk given my age.”
President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the main Philippine island of Luzon in mid-March, suspending work, classes and public transportation to contain a novel coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 20,000 and killed about a thousand people in the Philippines.
People should stay home except to buy food and other basic goods, he said. The President extended the so-called enhanced community quarantine twice for the island and thrice for Manila, the capital, and nearby cities where infections have been mostly concentrated.
The lockdown in many parts of the country including Metro Manila has since been relaxed, but mass gatherings remain banned.
Many people have died or grieved alone because of restrictions of the pandemic that has sickened seven million and killed more than 400,000 people worldwide. Heart-wrenching scenes from around the world convey a deep sense of loss as hundreds of thousands of people have died both from the disease known as COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and other illnesses.
Aggravating the pain and loss is the inability of many people to grieve normally and the powerlessness that their family and friends feel for failing to console them in person.
“Unlike in the West where one could visit the dead in a mortuary at certain hours, in the Philippines the wake plays a vital function in the lives of the dead person’s family,” Nestor T. Castro, an anthropology professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman said by telephone.
In the past, family members guarded the coffin from shape-shifting evil spirits called aswang in the predominantly Catholic nation, and in modern times the wake provides a platform for relatives and friends to comfort the family of the dead.
“During the wake people come and go, they ask you about what happened, and you tell stories while preparing coffee for them,” Mr. Castro said.
“You become busy and forget about the problem itself. You forget about the pain and the suffering. It’s only when the body is interred that you feel lonely because people are no longer with you at home,” he said. “The coronavirus took that away from us.”
In Spain, which has the fourth-biggest number of infections globally, funeral ceremonies including vigils at home were banned, and relatives allowed to attend burial ceremonies were limited to three as the government struggled with tens of thousands of deaths, according to AFP, the wire agency.
For many immigrant families in France, the coronavirus pandemic has halted the tradition of repatriating bodies to their country of origin, and finding a plot in France has become ever more difficult, the New York Times reported last month.
In India, where a quarter of a million people have been sickened by the COVID-19 virus, the riverbanks of the Ganges River that used to be lined with funeral pyres — giant piles of wood set alight to burn corpses — are now largely empty because of a nationwide lockdown, according to NPR.
And in the United States, where the virus has sickened almost two million people and killed about 112,000, a drive-in funeral theater helped families mourn during a coronavirus shutdown in Texas, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Cremation fees in the Philippines have doubled to P49,000 ($984) during the lockdown, while funeral expenses have shot up especially if they involve someone who died from the coronavirus, said Gemma Grande, a 55-year-old sales agent at death care expert St. Peter Group.
“Apart from the risk of getting infected while our staff handle the bodies, we also have to buy protective equipment while doing the service,” she said in Filipino by telephone, adding that memorial services have been shortened to two days.
Ms. Grande, who received a number of inquiries about their products during the lockdown, said the gloom that the pandemic brought with it seems to have made death more real to some Filipinos, who traditionally avoid the topic especially if it’s about their own.
“Somehow, it made them realize the importance of planning for their death,” she said. “You don’t want to become a burden to your loved ones when you die.”
“I’m not sure how long the so-called new normal will last, because Filipinos have a different concept of time,” Mr. Castro said.
“They live in the present, they respect the immediate past and future, but not the distant past and remote future,” he said. “That’s why we have a tendency to repeat our mistakes. We haven’t learned the lessons from Martial Law, and we haven’t learned the lessons from the 1918 pandemic because they are too distant.”
Filipino traditions and rituals would probably make a comeback next year — whether it’s allowed or not — “because people will most certainly find a way to overcome certain limitations,” the cultural anthropologist said.
So many things remain uncertain at this stage of the global health crisis, and it’s not clear what lasting effects the pandemic may have on the bereaved, whose grieving rites may be crucial to their mental and spiritual health.
Ms. Fonacier and her three remaining siblings managed to virtually attend their brother’s burial through Zoom.
“It was so emotionally painful,” she said. “Mom, who’s 94 and dad, who’s 93 were just like watching TV. They were watching their son get buried because they couldn’t get near him.”