We knew, both from the guide books and from the community here, that All Saints is a major festival here, and yesterday we ventured out into the cemeteries to see for ourselves what this celebration of the dead looks like.
This is a time for family reunions: in the days before buses, boats and planes are full as people travel to gather with relatives in what might seem an unusual venue for a family get together and party: the cemetery. People spend the whole day, and often the night too, gathered together around the graves of their dead relations. But this is no sad and morose memorial, it is most definitely a celebration: there is talking and laughter, games and food. I can confirm this is the first time I have seen a dunkin' donuts take-away stand inside the grounds of a cemetery!
We visited two different cemeteries: a private one and a public one: even in death there is a clear disparity between the rich and poor here. In the rich cemetery families set up tents over their grassy plots whilst in the poor one, people jostled for space around graves stacked four or five high. Having said that, the atmosphere of celebration was much the same, and vendors still sold flowers, candles and food. In both, coming from my mindset of thinking of cemeteries of silent places of reflection and recollection, it was a very, very different experience; a very different idea of how you remember and honour the dead.
At first view, this party in the cemetery seems to have little to do with a religious feast day: so is this a cultural phenomenon, an excuse for a family reunion, or really a celebration of a Christian festival? The reality, I guess, is that it is different for each person, for each family, but, in differing measures, it is probably all three.
Yes, it is cultural, and I doubt it could be easily exported into a different culture. We are all subject to the influences of our cultural surroundings, often subconsciously, and many of the things that individuals do, they probably do because that is what is done.
Yes it is a chance to gather together with the family. Families are important here and, in a country which counts more than 7000 islands, it is an opportunity to be reunited, to share and celebrate together.
And yes, it is religious too: mass was being celebrated throughout the day in the cemeteries, in between the feasting we did also see people saying prayers; and it does fit within a wider culture of praying for the dead which is much more in evidence here than in the UK.
And as an outsider, of course, I can observe and am very glad I have had the opportunity to do so, but I'm probably not qualified to judge what is really going on.