I subconsciously expected that pandemics would be a thing of the past, not to be experienced but only to be read about in history books. But in a fast-paced society obsessed with everything instant, what’s the addition of instant death on top of it? Instant noodles, instant coffee, instant messaging, and instant notifications are just a few ways to save time, but I would not have expected instant funeral rites, too — until I experienced them myself.
My aunt, dearly loved by everyone, was swiftly taken away by COVID-19. Everything had happened so fast: the difficult intake of breath, the uncomfortable swab, the urgent search for an ambulance, the solitary suffering, and the dying. It felt like lightning, how quickly she was gone, and her freshly warmed bed was a testament to it. My mother, who was still believing that her sister could survive just fine, was suddenly informed that her sister was dead. Moreover, she was told that she could not touch or even see her remains, but not that anyone could. My aunt’s body was immediately burned and cremated as soon as she perished. What broke my mother’s heart, even more, was the lack of proper and customary rituals for my aunt’s departure due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Never in a million years did I think I would have to teach my aging mother how to use a gadget just so she could participate in her own sister’s online novena. I was always childishly impatient with her in teaching her how to use a phone, but now I was patient enough because I understood how she felt. The only way my mother could feel half as connected to her sister, who was now in the afterlife, was through a laptop screen. It was better than nothing for all of us. At the very least, the online novena provided our family a bit of comfort and a chance to actualize our loss. It even brought faraway relatives together, just like the ones overseas and the ones we did not even know existed before the novena. But at the end of the day, however glad we were for the mini-reunion, we remained a family, brought together not by a pleasant celebration but by our beloved relative’s painful death. I remember how the online prayer sessions went.
There was no priest, no wake, no funeral mass, and no burial expected of Roman Catholics, but there was only a 9-day online novena.
It was held through a Messenger video call, but we could not fit all the people, so we had to improvise. Other more accommodating alternatives were out of the question as they would be inaccessible to my aunts and uncles, who had low to zero technical skills and no one in their house to help them set up. One example of this was my aunt, who was supposed to lead one prayer night. She appeared onscreen, smiled at us, and sheepishly showed her a handwritten copy of the 25-page prayer we would be using. She did not understand how to use both Messenger and the gallery on her phone simultaneously, so she opted to do it manually instead. She was not the only one having problems, because there was my uncle, too, who had a pitch-black screen. His camera was turned on, but his face was barely visible. We figured out that it was due to a combination of bad lighting and an electrical brownout. It felt all wrong to me because they did not deserve to suffer like this with unfamiliar technology, especially when their sister’s death was more than enough unfamiliarity, but then the prayer started. “Panalangin sa mga kaluluwa sa purgatoryo.”
There was even further disconnect. The lead read the words aloud, and we responded in unison, but our answers came out in disarray. The sounds of the words came at different times, piling on top of each other like a reflection of what I was feeling at that time. Or maybe I was just being dramatic because it was just a daily manifestation of the slow internet in the Philippines, despite its price. I told myself to just suck it up and be grateful because, at least, my mother had me, a laptop, and WiFi, so she could participate comfortably in the meeting, but doing that would not only be a spit in my aunts and uncles’ faces but also to the Filipinos who could not even hold a single day of prayer for their loved ones because they would rather use it for food to make sure the alive stay alive than use it for mobile data to celebrate the dead. I tried to keep my head straight as the prayer ended.
My family started greeting each other and reminiscing about my aunt. There were smiles and laughs, so I thought this was it. It almost felt like how it was supposed to be, just like a normal funeral rite, with the celebration of life that had been lived, until my mother appeared in the center of the screen. I remember how my mother tried to crack a joke before her face eventually crumbled. She rarely cried in front of us, but she broke down and burst into tears as she remembered her beloved sister and how much she had to suffer. I remembered it too. My aunt died before she saw my uncle again because he was abroad, still stuck and disallowed from going back home. Supposedly, if this tragedy had not happened, they were to meet again and stay together for a very long time, because finally, after more than ten years of being an OFW, my uncle was retiring. But now, we did not even know when my uncle could go home to see his wife’s urn.
As if that was not enough, my late aunt, who had battled with COVID-19 all alone in a hospital bed, would have thought not only about herself but also about her children and grandchildren. They also had COVID-19 at the same time she was suffering. With this, I hope no one is surprised when my sadness was easily overpowered by anger because I knew deep down in my bones that my aunt, her family, my mother, and every person who had experienced the same pain and loss did not deserve an ounce of it. My aunt’s death and almost everything that followed may have happened so quickly, but unfortunately, it will not include the most important one — acceptance. But no time is lost. All of the time we were deprived of will be transferred to our time of mourning. All of the time saved because of the instantaneity of my aunt’s passing will be spent on not allowing anyone to forget.
In the Philippines, death is rarely quiet. Filipinos should intend to keep it that way. No one should let anyone forgive and forget instantly. Doing so will not only kill the dead twice but also condemn more people to the same fate.
This is the fate of untimely and instantaneous deaths; hasty and difficult sending off of loved ones; and inadequacy washing over oneself just because one lacks the capacity or money to participate in a single online prayer for their family. Filipinos who understand the suffering should speak on behalf of the dead and their bereaved families. Filipinos who have not personally experienced the agony but believe that death is more than a number on a screen should echo the simple truth that no one else should suffer the same agony. This is why I hope that all of the anger rooted in love is yielded to the light of hope that no one else experiences the same pain.
May Filipinos not allow the same instantaneity that took my aunt’s life to bleed even to the duration of how fast people forgive and forget. Instantaneity must be left alone for other things, but not for properly grieving. Certainly, it is not to be left to the long fight of demanding change and accountability too.