Before I came to the Philippines, I’d only ever seen one dead person.

I was on my way home one afternoon and lying there on the cycle path was an old man. A small crowd had gathered and someone was on the phone to the ambulance. Apparently the old man had collapsed. The ambulance operator wanted someone to administer CPR. Ironically I was on my way home from a First Aid training course. He looked pretty dead already and I kept quiet. Obviously I’m not a medical expert and I didn’t know for sure that he was dead already, I was just too scared to do mouth-to-mouth on a dead person. The poor guy on the phone reluctantly did it, following the instructions of the operator. Mercifully the ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedic team took over. They got out the defibrillators but after a few tries the paramedics put their kit away and took the old man’s body to the hospital. I kicked myself afterwards for my fear.

So that was the first time. This past year I’ve had the discomfort of being around a lot more of death. I remember very early in my stay at the Bible College, late one rainy night a pastor arrived to stay the night. As we introduced ourselves he explained that he had been to visit his friend who had been taken to hospital and now the weather was too bad for him to make the journey home. Then he said he had arrived at the hospital too late, and his friend had already died. I wasn’t expecting that last part.

Filipino tradition is that after a death there is a vigil. The body of the deceased is embalmed and placed in a coffin with a glass cover which is brought into the family house for people to visit, pay their respects and pray for the dead person. It’s a testimony to the power of tradition that people will find the large amounts of money needed to pay for these services even when they don’t have enough to eat properly, send their children to college or pay for medical treatment. I’ve been to three vigils since arriving here and so I’ve become used to seeing the embalmed faces of someone’s mother or father. The first was the mother of a friend from the bible college. She had died of cancer. When she discovered she had cancer, she didn’t tell anyone because the family could not afford the treatment. The family only knew two weeks before she died, after she couldn’t hide it any longer.

The second vigil I visited was for a friend’s neighbour. She had died of heart failure. Her vigil lasted more than a week and many of the local people gathered outside the house, spending the entire time drinking and gambling. The third was a man who had been killed in a landslide after a storm. The landslide killed 24 people, pretty much instantly. I went to visit the site, expecting to see a rescue effort in operation, like in an earthquake. But landslides are not like earthquakes. A pile of mud sweeps away everything in its path and there’s almost no chance of survival. The only job left is to try to find the bodies. All the vigils I’ve visited here were for people in their forties. It’s not hard to find a young person who has lost one of their parents or a sibling. I’m 42, the youngest in my family and I still have both my parents and all my brothers and sisters. I’m thankful, but that fact was not remarkable to me until I arrived in the Philippines.

Last weekend I passed a parade line of officers on the road leading to the police headquarters, which is near where I live. They were waiting to receive some of the coffins of the 44 police commandos who had just been killed in an anti-terrorist operation in Mindanao. Even the arrival of the Pope brought death. On the day he visited here in Tacloban, at the airport a scaffolding holding PA equipment collapsed in the wind and a young woman was killed.

Death visited again last Thursday night. Some friends have just had a baby boy. I got a text from his mother that he had died earlier that evening. He had been discharged from hospital with no problems the day before, but he had simply stopped breathing. He was five days old. When I got to the house the parents were alone with the baby. I prayed for a miracle but really I was out of my depth and the grief was overwhelming.

I stayed and continued to pray until it had become insensitive to stay any longer. It was well into the night and I was a long way from home so I walked around the village until it got light. At daybreak I called on a neighbour who gave me breakfast and let me sleep in their porch until it was time to take the baby to the cemetery. On returning to the house, a coffin was being prepared from roughly-cut plywood and painted white. As they placed the boy in the coffin and sealed the lid, his mother’s cries competed with the sound of the hammer on the nails. The sound was brutal and final. I couldn’t look but only hang my head and pray that I would never see this scene again. The last nail held in place the ribbons bearing the child’s name. After this, two men on a motorcycle carried the coffin to the cemetery with others following behind.

I was surprised to find that the cemetery was a busy place. A lot of people seemed to be milling around making it feel like a public park on a hot bank holiday. We arrived as a hearse was just leaving. We found a piece of unoccupied ground around the edge of the cemetery and one of the men began to dig a shallow grave. After the coffin was placed in it, each person threw in a flower, picked from the ground around us. A plywood cross had been made to mark the grave. The name couldn’t be written on it as the marker pen wouldn’t take on the still-wet paint. Instead the ribbons were taken from the coffin and attached to it. The only ceremony was the placing of flowers on the coffin, picked from the ground around us. After covering the grave, we returned to the village. We left the cemetery just as another procession was arriving. Death’s business is brisk.

I didn’t know how to finish this entry, until today, when I got a facebook message from my sister to tell me that my 47-year-old brother has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. (NB We don’t ordinarily have important family conversations by facebook message. We’re just on opposite sides of the world). It’s advanced and they need to operate quickly. Apparently the success rate is maybe 60%. The death I have seen so much of here now casts its shadow over my own family.


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