A Blend of Traditions: Filipino Views on Death and Dying

The culture of Filipinos has a diverse cultural background. This can be seen through the diversity of its culture and traditions. A good example of this diversity is seen through the traditions that surround death and dying. Filipino traditions that surround death and dying are a blend of indigenous, Spanish, and American influence that makes Filipino traditions unique.

In order to discuss the cultural diversity of the Philippines, the nation’s history must first be discussed to establish cultural context. The Philippines had been a colony of Spain for over three hundred years until it was gained as a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American war in 1898 (Braun & Nichols 1997). In result, Filipinos were considered as U.S. Nationals, which allowed for immigration to the United States (Braun & Nichols 1997). These historical contexts face Filipinos with three different cultures; indigenous, Spanish, and American which all contribute to Filipinos’ culture and traditions.

The Filipinos have many indigenous traditions that regard death and dying. One of these traditions is called an “atang” (Braun & Nichols 1997). An atang is a feast prepared by the bereaved family. The feast is made up of the favorite food of the deceased person and a seat at the dinner table is left open in memory of that person. Another indigenous tradition is to bury the deceased with his or her personal belongings such as glasses, watch, and toiletries so the person’s soul would have no reason to come back from the dead to retrieve them (Braun & Nichols 1997). Also, another native custom would be to keep the deceased person’s body in the family’s home during the grieving process (Braun & Nichols 1997). I personally experienced this as a child when I went to the Philippines for my grandmother’s funeral and I found it pretty eerie. These traditions may be considered to be indigenous to the Filipino people because they occurred prior to Spanish colonization.

Since the Spanish had been a colonial power in the Philippines for over 330 years (Braun & Nichols 1997), they had a major influence on Filipino traditions. The primary influence may be the Catholic religion. I argue that aspects of the Catholicism are combined with these indigenous traditions to make up the modern traditions that we see in the Philippines today. For example, the bereaving and grieving process starts with a novena. A novena is a Catholic prayer session that consists of the reciting of original prayers and the using of rosary prayer beads (Braun & Nichols 1997). This prayer session usually lasts for nine days and the “atang” feast is held on this ninth day (Braun & Nichols 1997). Also, the Catholic novena prayers are performed in the home in front of the deceased person’s body, contrasting a funeral home or Catholic church. This may show that Filipinos combined the in-home grieving process and atang feast with the Catholic custom of novena prayers (Braun & Nichols 1997). These examples show how Catholic and indigenous traditions are blended together to make the unique bereavement traditions that we see today.

Further influences on Filipino views on death and dying come from American exposure.   When the Filipinos moved to the United States, their viewpoints on death and dying began to change even more (Braun & Nichols 1997). For example, the novena prayers that were traditionally held in the deceased person’s house had to be moved to funeral homes because U.S. laws prohibit keeping dead bodies in the home for the nine-day service (Braun & Nichols 1997). Further, before American exposure, organ donation after death was not accepted among Filipinos (Braun & Nichols 1997). However, organ donation is more accepted among U.S. born Filipinos (Braun & Nichols 1997). What we can see here is not so much of a blending of viewpoints that we saw with Spanish, rather, a more direct influence from American culture.

Modern Filipino traditions on death and dying combines cultural aspects from many different influences. Rather than rejecting a foreign influence, the customs are incorporated and shared. I feel like this is an example of an adaptive mindset that the Filipinos have developed after being repeatedly exposed to foreign influence. Personally, I have had a first hand experience of these traditions and I did not realize the different influences until I dissected each practice. Although many of these practices come from different influences, I think that Filipinos over time had adopted them as their own bringing a unique face to the Filipino culture.


Braun, K. L., & Nichols, R. (1997). DEATH AND DYING IN FOUR ASIAN AMERICAN CULTURES: A DESCRIPTIVE STUDY. Death Studies, 21(4), 327-359. doi:10.1080/074811897201877


One comment on “A Blend of Traditions: Filipino Views on Death and Dying

  1. Lorette says:

    We filipinos, people of love and respect and despite such a rich culture, why is bereavement leave is still not not regulated under the law.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s