Anthropology professor of UP-Mindanao Aya Ragragio invited us for a visit to the Libingan ng mga Bayani. She showed us an aerial view of the place and then took us for a leisurely promenade around it while spiritedly confiding everything she knew about the consecrated ground. And this is her interesting narrative:
It may not be apparent at ground level, but the Libingan ng mga Bayani is what archaeologists would call a concentric cemetery, in that it grows out of a central burial in a circular fashion. In the case of the Libingan, this central burial is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, found in the middle of the circular cemetery lay-out, and which presumably sets the values that this cemetery seeks to amplify. The scholar Benedict Anderson remarks that there are “no more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism that exist than cenotaphs or tombs of Unknown Soldiers.” I may also add that anonymity is a crucial ingredient to qualify this concept of “nationalism” as one that rewards complete selflessness and sacrifice.
But looking at the other burials in the rest of the Libingan reveals a disconnect with this core principle. This is because the circular cemetery is divided into concentric segments, with those sections closest to the Unknown Soldier being reserved for Presidents, Vice-Presidents, government dignitaries, congressmen, and other VIPs. In these sections of the cemetery, individuality is put on full display: names and biographical notes are prominently written, personal exploits are detailed, and there are even photos and sculptural representations of the deceased. Nothing drives this point more strongly than the fact that no two graves look the same, and each stands out visibly with their unique burial structures. The amount of space allowed for one burial is also considerable – of course, since a single plot cannot accommodate all the slabs and plaques and statuary needed to commemorate these personages. The leeway for individualistic expression or family wishes is wide.
This contrasts greatly with the sections farther away from the central Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where lower-ranking servicemen (including the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor during the Second World War) are interred. Here, uniformity is paramount: all simply get a white cement cross with their name, rank, and dates of birth and death. The small space allotted is the same for all. It is also not surprising that these peripheral areas of the cemetery were poorly maintained: at the time of my visit the grass is overgrown and some crosses were disaligned or had even toppled over. (As a quick aside, I thought that if President Duterte wants Marcos to be buried here simply because he was a “soldier”, then he should be buried in this portion of the cemetery, though I highly doubt that the Marcos family will be amenable to this.)
Behind my ears I could hear a murmur from somewhere—somewhere from the lips of an English poet long dead. Once in his lifetime he happened to be in a burial g round in a country churchyard. There were these uncelebrated mounds of country folks unknown.
Yes, I could instantly hear Thomas Gray’s lisping voice from his An Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard which distracted me from Ms. Ragragio’s discourse and even caused a lump in my throat and a sudden heaviness in my eyes.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And lost its sweetness in the desert air.
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Simple folks—country folks—nameless folks—who wouldn’t so much as claim a share in their country’s history. Or utter the faintest cry of protest for having been left out from the rooster of their nation’s builders. Simple folks whose lives are buried in the day-to-day strifes and harsh struggles for survival. But Thomas Gray in his immortal elegy raised them not to a stature of heroes but as legislators of the world’s universal republic, seeing in their lowly lives and commonplace existence the gemstones of humane values the rich and powerful have thrown aside.
Indeed, we need to hear once more the treasures that the venerable poet has unearthed in his musing communion with the uncelebrated lives of ordinary folks, even as we grapple with the tensions created by President Duterte’s plan to bury the dictator’s corpse in the Libingan ng mga Bayani come September.
We might as well screw into the consciousness of the Marcoses these lines from Thomas Gray’s Elegy:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
All that beauty, all that wealth ever gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
With angry lament, we raise these queries: Why would the Marcos Family insist on giving a hero’s burial to the tyrant dictator? What insatiable greed for glory resides in their soul that they won’t stop at nothing to assert their false claims to our nation’s history?