Undas: The Philippines’ Day of the Dead
Undas is the Philippines’ own Día de los Muertos, albeit not as colorful and festive. The Philippine Day of the Dead is more solemn and family-oriented, with the exception of enjoying food and drink by the graves of loved ones, sometimes offering a share of the snack to the dead.
Learn more about this tradition here.
Undas: The Filipino Day of the Dead
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Precolonial reverence for ancestors
In a previous article, we have discussed how Spaniards Christianized the rituals, practices, and feasts of our deeply spiritual, animistic ancestors. Remembering and respecting the dead were an established practice even in precolonial times. Before the Spaniards came and introduced the concept of the cemetery and All Souls Day, we already had burial grounds and traditions for deceased family members. In fact, we precolonial Filipinos venerated or revered our own ancestors. We did not have one “day of the dead” in a year; we revered the dead all year round, asking for their guidance in times of need and thanking them for success and joy.
Ancestor spirits were known as kalading among the Cordillerans, tonong among the Maguindanao and Maranao, umboh among the Sama-Bajau; ninunò among Tagalogs, umalagad among Visayans, and nono among Bicolanos. There was no concept of heaven or hell prior to the introduction of Christianity and Islam. Instead, the spirit world is usually depicted as an underworld that is a mirror image of the material world. Souls reunite with deceased relatives in the underworld and lead normal lives in the underworld as they did in the material world.
The predominantly Roman Catholic Filipino people still hold ancestors in particular esteem. Like cultures that believe their ancestors need to be provided for by their descendants, our tradition of offering food to our deceased loved ones’ graves is a pre-Hispanic practice, not a Catholic one. It is called pag-aatang in Ilocos, pag-aalay in Tagalog, and halad in the Visayas. Some families also still believe in watching over their loved ones’ graves overnight to guard the remains from aswang. Superstitious beliefs related to funerals such as refraining from bathing or combing hair and wearing black or white clothes during the interment are of precolonial origin as well.
Origin of Undas
Meanwhile, having an exact day to remember the dead is a Western practice. In the eleventh century, St. Odilo, then the abbot of Cluny in France, was advised of a specific place along the pilgrim’s route to the Holy Land, a spot where “moanings of impure souls arose” from an opening in the ground. These were supposedly the spirits trapped in purgatory, and a prayerful tradition for their ascent to heaven was soon established. Thus one theory traces the term undas from the Latin word unda, which means “smoke that billows.” St. Odilo later decreed that all monasteries of the congregation of Cluny were to annually keep November 2 as a “day of all departed ones” by offering alms, prayers, and sacrifices for the relief of the suffering souls in purgatory. The observance of the Benedictines of Cluny’s Day of the Dead was soon adopted by other Benedictines.
It took the practice around three hundred years to spread throughout Catholic Europe. Finally, in the fourteenth century, Rome officially made November 2 as the official day for the commemoration of “all the faithful departed.” The date was chosen so that the memory of all the “holy spirits,” both the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory should be celebrated on two successive days.
The more popular etymology of undas, on the other hand, is the Spanish word honrar, meaning respect. In this context, the word refers to “respect for the dead.” Honrar conjugated to the first person present tense is honras (“you honor”). In Cavite, the Day of the Dead is still called Undras.
Today, Filipinos gather in graveyards to clean and decorate the family grave as early as All Hallow’s Eve, then offer the dead prayers, candles, flowers, and food. More often than not, mourners keep vigil overnight at graves, eating and making merry to pass the time and keep the dead company sometimes for days.
Pangangaluwa (literally souling) is a Tagalog folk tradition where people clad in white cloth visit houses on All Hallows’ Eve and sing songs related to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to solicit for gifts. Kakanin or rice cakes, as well as food products made from sweet potato and purple yam, are usually prepared as tributes to these “souls” who are said to be hungry for food and attention; otherwise, the spirits would cause mischief or steal the chickens in the homesteads.
In Cavite City, fervent preparations begin a week before the first of November. Black is the color of Undras. Even the food served is black to signify solemnity and mourning. In the town of Naic, Alikaya is a black-colored biko made from a dark-hued glutinous rice called pirurutong. It is served along with pansit pusit, bihon, or sotanghon noodles blackened by squid ink.
In Cebu, the rice cake tradition during Undas takes the form of biko, offered in home altars, as well as in the cemeteries. Many families still practice this, just as their ancestors did before the arrival of Magellan in 1521.
Like any Filipino family reunion, Undas is a celebration of meals, gossip, and storytelling. However, unlike Catholic Mexico, Filipinos prefers solemnity for some reason. The syncretism of precolonial animism and Spanish influence, perhaps? Most likely.