By Pinky Serafica

Obituaries are viral in this season of dying. They are there daily, ubiquitous on social media walls, on feeds, in chat rooms. They are not the newspapers’ printed one-eighths of old or full paged or a spread, if the deceased is rich enough or well-known enough. Before there was social media, a section in newspapers had pre-tombstones: dates mark birth and death timelines, the list of survived-bys and beloveds, announcement of wakes, and in the center, a photo and a quote.

In this coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, obituaries and eulogies blur their traditional definitions, conjoin and share online space. Individual walls become the graffiti canvas of choice for heartbreaks, where tributes run from elegy to memoir, and are deeply personal. Scanned analogue pictures are posted with the long remembrances, all of them telling yet another story. 

Roberto Versola’s friends and colleagues set up an online memorial page on Keeper. His death was not related to COVID-19.

There is a widespread assumption that persons who die during the COVID-19 pandemic should immediately be cremated, given the highly infectious nature of the disease. In its Interim Guidelines released on 24 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) clarified that unless the deaths are caused by hemorrhagic fevers and cholera, “cadavers do not transmit disease.”  Cremation then, “is a matter of cultural choice and available resources,” thus, deaths due to COVID-19 could be cremated or buried.

Philippine health department guidelines allow burials but emphasize preference for cremation within 12 hours after death.  Most public health guidelines strongly ask grieving families to postpone funeral ceremonies until the end of the pandemic, the timeline of which nobody can adequately predict.  Wakes are discouraged except for immediate family members.  

Traditional send-offs that usually take at least three days for a Filipino household, complete with protracted goodbyes, become brief and hurried.  Bereft of the necessary rituals to begin the letting-go, friends and kin reach out to community, and wear their hearts on the sleeves of their online walls.  And with the quarantine protracted to more than a month of isolation, it is close to crazy to keep the desolation private.  

The black box that needed pink ribbons

“Doctora Baby,” 74, was a pediatrician in Marikina, Philippines before she emigrated to Georgia in the United States. There, the workaholic Dr. Lourdes Malabanan-Little juggled three jobs until a brain surgery and strokes confined her to a wheelchair, and she slowly acquiesced to being the more civilian “Mama Babes.” She survived tumors, blockages and some ruptures for years until her daughter, Ann Moratin-Adams received a call on 18 April that her mom was rushed to the emergency room because she was gasping for breath, and then another call just an hour later, saying she was not breathing anymore.

Mama Babes, before the brain surgery and strokes that confined her to a wheelchair | Credit: Pinky Serafica

The nursing home first called Ging Gilliams, Mama Babes’ sister and primary caregiver who regularly visited her, was then still at the hospital recovering from COVID-19. Her husband, Chuck, had just come out of the ICU.

She who hated confinement, and once tried to have adventures on her wheelchair that earned her proud stitches, came home in a black box with the thickness of two laptops.  Mama Babes died without her family, and was cremated with only cyber prayers and condolences filling the inboxes of her bewildered kin.

The plain black was so unlike her who always had a flower in her hair, bedecked in colorful fashion and flair. Ann tied a pink ribbon around the box that held her mom’s ashes, and stenciled hearts and “Mama Babes” as she wondered her whys privately in an online chat: Why was her condition not discovered quickly? Why was she suddenly sick? Why was the Home not ready?

Mama Babes was never tested for the coronavirus disease because the Cambridge Post Acute Care Center, a nursing home in Snellville, Gwinnett County, Atlanta where she was a resident, was locked down since 10 March. Mama Babes never got to attend her daughter, Ann’s wedding on 15 March because she was high-risk and supposedly, the nursing home was closed to the world to protect its residents.

Mama Babes was cremated, and her ashes were delivered to Ann’s home, just like any other that made the rounds in COVID-19 times.  Even the 40th day novena which Catholic homes practice, was done online with relatives from different timelines, and prayers that did not fly but Zoomed and Skyped in. 

Graphics: Failing with Style

Dying alone

When something is named and the name carries, the phenomenon or the thing baptized acquires solidity, and witnessed by and attested by a growing community. Then it becomes a household word.  The Japanese have a name for dying alone, calling it Kodokushi for lonely deaths. This came after national alarm was finally set off in 2017, when more than 4,000 elderly were discovered days, sometimes weeks, dead in their apartments without anyone knowing.  

Kodokushi had been attributed to the elderly’s social isolation, where parents were increasingly left alone while their grown children pursue their lives looking elsewhere but inwards. Some relationships were estranged, some opted for the arrangement out of convenience and practicality.  However for Filipinos, with their extended family set-ups that are either a bane or a boon when generations of families still live together, the COVID-19 online posts of “he died alone, she died alone” were terrifying.

There is no term yet for dying alone in the Philippines other than a generic description.  And when a beloved did die alone or turned out of hospitals to die anonymously in make-shift tents, the heartbroken family casts off its online privacy restrictions and reach out to extended families in the internet, expanding to strangers most of whom are sympathetic.

Mercy Fabros’ friends and family poured online tributes to the pioneering feminist and reproductive health advocate. Her death was not related to COVID-19. / Credit: PKKK’s Facebook page

 “I hear you breathing again, dad”

Had Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman been written today, Death, that gorgeous, warm woman who is all goth, cat eyes, ankh and big black umbrella to travel to the sunless lands — would also have a gadget and internet.  She is who anyone living will see in the end, holding the line.   

Abby Adair Reinhard’s father, Don Adair, 76, was only five miles away from her in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a hospital in Rochester, New York, but being COVID-19 positive, she couldn’t care for nor visit him. In a public Facebook post, she chronicled his last couple of days when a kind nurse called her and kept her phone connected to the ICU all throughout his struggles to survive.  “I hear you breathing again, dad. So grateful for that sound,” she told him though he couldn’t speak or hold up his phone anymore.

Reinhard patched in her siblings who were in the different timezones of Dallas, Raleigh and Copenhagen. None of them hung up for 36 hours, until that one night when, although still connected live, they agreed to sleep. And then — “what are the chances that you’d pass within an hour of our break? …Or maybe you didn’t have the space to leave while we were hanging on your every breath.”   

Though the Adair siblings’ vigil was lonely, her post was embraced by condolences from friends and strangers, crossing cultures that varied greatly in death and burial practices, but shared one sadness: a loved one dying and we are all far away.  WWW 

(For Lourdes Castillo-Malabanan who almost convinced me to be a doctor, and because of whom, I didn’t, 5 February 1946 – 18 April 2020

and Roberto Versola whose engineer mind was so way ahead that it forayed to I.T., environmentalism, community building and progressive politics, but Philippine society wasn’t ready for such a mind, 4 November 1952 – 6 May 2020]   

*ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pinky Serafica is a development communication / behavior change communication specialist at the Asian Development Bank.  Manila-based, she regular travels in Asia for work and to the Cordilleras in Northern Philippines to “live simultaneous lives” being a cyclist, trekker and advocate of sustainable lifestyles.