Saturday, March 03, 2012

“Matamata”: Picking bones*

CAN you eat and sleep with human bones?

It was with a jolt that I learned from a colleague that the room where we ate lunch and rested also stored a skeleton.

Someone donated the remains for students to study the human body. When there was a hitch in constructing the model, the bones were moved to the darkroom.

The box containing the bones resurfaced to our attention when the room was renovated. While our group talked about stopping wood rot and condemning power outlets, the box containing what used to be a person reposed not two feet away— not quite yet in a state of eternal rest due to an earthly conflict of theory and practice.

Who was he? Or she?

In the confusion of awareness, ascertaining the gender seemed as important as determining what should be done for what was in the box. This after all was someone who moved around in this world before moving on.

What if the family of cats that slinked in and out of our rooms had helped themselves to the box when the waste basket pickings were lean, say, over a long weekend? After all this time, we might not even have enough to honor the dead or to construct a model for artists to sketch.

Yet not one of us approached and opened the box, lying on top of old term papers.

It’s more than superstition that makes us uneasy around bones. When my great grandfather passed away, the clan placed him to the right of my great grandmother’s remains. I was told couples should never be separated, even by death.

Behind the expansive slab of stone where they reposed, workmen constructed smaller square shelves.

This became a favorite place for us children to hide behind in our games. It was a two-day wonder for me when they transferred other bones in the cabinets I thought were made to hold unused flower vases or candle holders. When you were buried for a long time, how could people tell this pile of dust was you, not someone else?

Recently, over coffee, my friend E. recounted how she and her cousin searched in cemeteries for ancestors that migrated from Germany to Australia. They had only a few handed-down stories of the mother and older siblings of their patriarch. If family history is a many-roomed complex, E. and her cousin never played near these locked, boarded-up rooms of their clan’s past. How can you find the past without memory as your guide?

With the assistance of a local historical foundation, E. and her cousin gained access to a database, which listed all the deceased who shared the family name as their patriarch. Their search eventually ended with them, reunited, walking around cemetery plots, whose coordinates were specified in the database.

In the National Library of Australia, amateurs piecing together bits of their family history can help themselves to all kinds of records and indexes in paper, microform and electronic formats: births, deaths and marriages, immigration and shipping, naturalization, parish registers, censuses and, yes, cemetery transcripts.

In this country, knowing the past is racing against the inevitable: memories decaying, paper decaying, lives ending. Bones cast a superstitious pall but are poor storytellers. While trying to trace how my family’s history began, I realized I did not even know where my great great grandparents were buried.

I called my uncle, who, at 87, can vividly trace our ancestors’ route from the old Catholic cemetery to the bone chambers in a private cemetery. The very same cabinets I left my offering of candle stumps, wilting flowers and balls of wax. Whose marble slab released the day’s heat to our flushed cheeks, pressed against it while hiding and giggling those long endless afternoons when the young played beyond the reach of ancient, mute bones.

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 4, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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