The one thing perhaps that indisputably distinguishes man from the brute creation is the attention which he pays to those who have passed away and, wonder of wonders! this characteristic seems to be more deeply rooted in proportion to the lack of civilization. Historians relate that the ancient inhabitants of the Philippines venerated and deified their ancestors; but now the contrary is true, and the dead have to entrust themselves to the living. It is also related that the people of New Guinea preserve the bones of their dead in chests and maintain communication with them. The greater part of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and America offer them the finest products of their kitchens or dishes of what was their favorite food when alive, and give banquets at which they believe them to be present. The Egyptians raised up palaces and the Mussulmans built shrines, but the masters in these things, those who have most clearly read the human heart, are the people of Dahomey. These negroes know that man is revengeful, so they consider that nothing will more content the dead than to sacrifice all his enemies upon his grave, and, as man is curious and may not know how to entertain himself in the other life, each year they send him a newsletter under the skin of a beheaded slave.
We ourselves differ from all the rest. In spite of the inscriptions on the tombs, hardly any one believes that the dead rest, and much less, that they rest in peace. The most optimistic fancies his forefathers still roasting in purgatory and, if it turns out that he himself be not completely damned, he will yet be able to associate with them for many years. If any one would contradict let him visit the churches and cemeteries of the country on All Saints’ day and he will be convinced.
Now that we are in San Diego let us visit its cemetery, which is located in the midst of paddy-fields, there toward the west—not a city, merely a village of the dead, approached by a path dusty in dry weather and navigable on rainy days. A wooden gate and a fence half of stone and half of bamboo stakes, appear to separate it from the abode of the living but not from the curate’s goats and some of the pigs of the neighborhood, who come and go making explorations among the tombs and enlivening the solitude with their presence. In the center of this enclosure rises a large wooden cross set on a stone pedestal. The storms have doubled over the tin plate for the inscription INRI, and the rains have effaced the letters. At the foot of the cross, as on the real Golgotha, is a confused heap of skulls and bones which the indifferent grave-digger has thrown from the graves he digs, and there they will probably await, not the resurrection of the dead, but the coming of the animals to defile them. Round about may be noted signs of recent excavations; here the earth is sunken, there it forms a low mound. There grow in all their luxuriance the tarambulo to prick the feet with its spiny berries and the pandakaki to add its odor to that of the cemetery, as if the place did not have smells enough already. Yet the ground is sprinkled with a few little flowers which, like those skulls, are known only to their Creator; their petals wear a pale smile and their fragrance is the fragrance of the tombs. The grass and creepers fill up the corners or climb over the walls and niches to cover and beautify the naked ugliness and in places even penetrate into the fissures made by the earthquakes, so as to hide from sight the revered hollowness of the sepulcher.
At the time we enter, the people have driven the animals away, with the single exception of some old hog, an animal that is hard to convince, who shows his small eyes and pulling back his head from a great gap in the fence, sticks up his snout and seems to say to a woman praying near, “Don’t eat it all, leave something for me, won’t you?”
Two men are digging a grave near one of the tottering walls. One of them, the grave-digger, works with indifference, throwing about bones as a gardener does stones and dry branches, while the other, more intent on his work, is perspiring, smoking, and spitting at every moment.
“Listen,” says the latter in Tagalog, “wouldn’t it be better for us to dig in some other place? This is too recent.”
“One grave is as recent as another.”
“I can’t stand it any longer! That bone you’re just cut in two has blood oozing from it—and those hairs?”
“But how sensitive you are!” was the other’s reproach. “Just as if you were a town clerk! If, like myself, you had dug up a corpse of twenty days, on a dark and rainy night—! My lantern went out—”
His companion shuddered.
“The coffin burst open, the corpse fell half-way out, it stunk—and supposing you had to carry it—the rain wet us both—”
“Ugh! And why did you dig it up?”
The grave-digger looked at him in surprise. “Why? How do I know? I was ordered to do so.”
“Who ordered you?”
The grave-digger stepped backward and looked his companion over from head to foot. “Man, you’re like a Spaniard, for afterwards a Spaniard asked me the same questions, but in secret. So I’m going to answer you as I answered the Spaniard: the fat curate ordered me to do so.”
“Ah! And what did you do with the corpse afterwards?” further questioned the sensitive one.
“The devil! If I didn’t know you and was not sure that you are a man I would say that you were certainly a Spaniard of the Civil Guard, since you ask questions just as he did. Well, the fat curate ordered me to bury it in the Chinamen’s cemetery, but the coffin was heavy and the Chinese cemetery far away—”
“No, no! I’m not going to dig any more!” the other interrupted in horror as he threw away his spade and jumped out of the hole. “I’ve cut a skull in two and I’m afraid that it won’t let me sleep tonight.” The old grave-digger laughed to see how the chicken-hearted fellow left, crossing himself.
The cemetery was filling up with men and women dressed in mourning. Some sought a grave for a time, disputing among themselves the while, and as if they were unable to agree, they scattered about, each kneeling where he thought best. Others, who had niches for their deceased relatives, lighted candles and fell to praying devoutly. Exaggerated or suppressed sighs and sobs were heard amid the hum of prayers, orapreo, orapreiss, requiem-aeternams, that arose from all sides.
A little old man with bright eyes entered bareheaded. Upon seeing him many laughed, and some women knitted their eyebrows. The old man did not seem to pay any attention to these demonstrations as he went toward a pile of skulls and knelt to look earnestly for something among the bones. Then he carefully removed the skulls one by one, but apparently without finding what he sought, for he wrinkled his brow, nodded his head from side to side, looked all about him, and finally rose and approached the grave-digger, who raised his head when the old man spoke to him.
“Do you know where there is a beautiful skull, white as the meat of a coconut, with a complete set of teeth, which I had there at the foot of the cross under those leaves?”
The grave-digger shrugged his shoulders.
“Look!” added the old man, showing a silver coin, “I have only this, but I’ll give it to you if you find the skull for me.”
The gleam of the silver caused the grave-digger to consider, and staring toward the heap of bones he said, “Isn’t it there? No? Then I don’t know where it is.”
“Don’t you know? When those who owe me pay me, I’ll give you more,” continued the old man. “It was the skull of my wife, so if you find it for me—”
“Isn’t it there? Then I don’t know! But if you wish, I can give you another.”
“You’re like the grave you’re digging,” apostrophized the old man nervously. “You don’t know the value of what you lose. For whom is that grave?”
“How should I know?” replied the other in bad humor.
“For a corpse!”
“Like the grave, like the grave!” repeated the old man with a dry smile. “You don’t know what you throw away nor what you receive! Dig, dig on!” And he turned away in the direction of the gate.
Meanwhile, the grave-digger had completed his task, attested by the two mounds of fresh red earth at the sides of the grave. He took some buyo from his salakot and began to chew it while he stared stupidly at what was going on around him.