Since everyone is basically on vacation until around Tuesday, here’s an article I wrote for Araw Magazine some years back. It’s in keeping with the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls.
Paranormal and Historical: A quest for meaning in the North Cemetery
by Manuel L. Quezon III
AS a young boy, my father began to take me on what he called “pilgrimages.” Our first was to the Barasoain Church, where he proudly -and what would I would later discover, would be considered in a most unpolitically-correct manner- told me to look at the plaque listing the delegates to the Malolos Congress, and said, proudly, “look how many names are still familiar to us in our national life.”
The second pilgrimage would be to the Aguinaldo Mansion in Kawit, where I would climb to the very top of the tower of the House, and a grand-daughter of the General showed us around. Finally, we ended up in the garden, gazing at the white marble tomb of Aguinaldo, where we said a short prayer for the repose of his soul.
There would be other pilgrimages, but the the first pilgrimage I remember, and the pilgrimage that we always did, year after year, was the most personal pilgrimage of all: to the North Cemetery. Among my earliest memories are visiting the family plot, where my grandfather was still buried, his remains not being moved to the Quezon Memorial until 1979. From an early age, I was reminded and told of the history that surrounded us, that was part of us, and so close to us. Across from our family plot was the rotunda bearing what was then a tomb identical to my grandfather’s, in which were the remains of President Manuel Roxas.
On the way to our family plot, of course, were the tombs of the famous and the great; tombs my father would point out as worthy of veneration, and even visiting. This is how I learned about the lives of many people whom people my age no longer know about: Quintin Paredes, Sergio Osmena, Ramon Magsaysay, the boy scouts that died in an air crash on their way to a jamboree; the veterans of the Revolution; and later, shortly before my father passed away, Francis Burton Harrison, American governor-general and later, Filipino citizen.
When Araw Magazine approached me to write an article on the North Cemetery, a problem immediately came to the fore. A place I know -and in a strange way, even love- is, for most Filipinos, terra incognita. Who knows that while the Libingan ng mga Bayani is supposed to be Arlington Cemetery of the Philippines, there are more famous men and women buried in a public cemetery belonging to the City of Manila? How to turn what would otherwise be a boring tour -for much as I hate it, the fact is most Filipinos my age don’t give a damn about our history, much less the final resting place of famous personalities- into something interesting and possibly even challenging?
Enter the Spirit Questors. I suggested to the editor that we call the Spirit Questors to add, if I may use the term, a new dimension to the graves of the famous in the North Cemetery. How many people even know, I asked my editor, that Rizal is actually buried in the Rizal Monument? Not many even realize my grandfather rests in a miniature copy of Napoleon’s tomb in the Quezon Memorial. And what’s more, while every year the dwindling faithful or the families of these personages visit the tombs of the famous dead, how many ordinary citizens make their own versions of the pilgrimages my father considered it a civic duty to take me on?
And so I had the opportunity to meet the famed Spirit Questors and Tony Perez. I have read about their activities in the press, and happen to have Ruel de Vera’s two books about the Spirit Questors, and have admired Tony Perez’s writings for some time. But it was only last Saturday that I finally got to meet some Spirit Questors as a group and Tony Perez himself. It is an understatement to say I was favorably impressed with the Spirit Questors themselves and Tony Perez.I met six Spirit Questors the rainy and gloomy Saturday we finally managed to push through with the “tour”: Chi, who is 28, and has been with the group since 1998; Gary, who is 25, and a veteran, being part of the group since 1996; CJ, 21, a charming young lady who is a new addition to the group; Neel, who has been with the group since 1999 and is 23; Jaime, who at 20 was the youngest in the group but who has been part of the group since 1999; and Victor, 23, who has been a questor since 2000. And of course, Tony Perez himself, who came along to provide guidance to the group.Prior to our meeting he told me he had spent the morning among the tombs of the Thomasites.
Our first stop was the tomb of President Ramon Magsaysay, which was patterned after the original tombs of Presidents Quezon and Roxas. The Questors approached the tomb gingerly, at first, then finally gathered the courage to stand in a circle around it, their left hands resting on the tomb.
Said one: “He’s fine. He’s no longer here; he’s happy in his present state; he’s content with how his children have turned out. Sometimes he comes back to guide them.”
Said another: “I sense he was a strict disciplinarian, to his kids especially; and he had time to say goodbye to his family before he died.”
Generally all said he was at peace; though what startled me was the abrupt comment of one: “But there’s no head!”
How did that Spirit Questor know very little of the mortal remains of Magsaysay had been retrieved and interred in this tomb?
Our next stop was one not dictated by fame, but my aesthetic sense. All my life I have marveled at the beauty of a neglected tomb, with a sculpture, in marble, of a mourning angel. That day was the first time I actually went up to the tomb, located in a sad, overgrown plot. The tomb turned out to be two: of Mercedes Johnson, 1900-1917, and E.H. Johnson, 1878-1916. The tomb was sculpted by the renowned firm of Luerssen y Oriol. Over the name of Mercedes was Pi and Chi of Christian symbolism; over E.H.’s tomb, the compass and G of the Freemasons. It was at this tomb that the Spirit Questors had the most to say.
“I see a violent burial,” said one, in a whisper, “a great deal of mourning: A Filipina, standing over this tomb, angry over something that should have been given her.”
Another saw images of two men: one scheming; another profaning the tomb by urinating on it.
Still another said that one couldn’t avoid the impression that “the girl was buried alive”; another reemphasised that “there were many people at the funeral.”
Yet another Questor said that the story seemed to be that the two, probably father and daughter, were deeply attached to one another; that the daughter, who seemed to have Spanish features, was in love with a Filipino, but that there was some sort of conflict due to the girl’s coming from a Spanish family. Others said the sense of some sort of forbidden love haunted the life of the girl was strong; one saw scenes of meetings in a garden, with the family home in the distance; the daughter, it seems, may have died of grief, her father having passed on ahead, due to an accident.
Someone mentioned foul play seemed to be involved. “I sense great anger, one of them still wants vengeance.”
Another Questor wandered away from the group, staring at a tombstone near the back of the plot, and when asked why he had wandered off, he shrugged: “there was an old Filipino watching me -I had to look.”
From this tomb, which had caused such great excitement Ã¢â‚¬â€œand the most intense speculation of the day- we went on to my family’s plot.
The Questors formed a circle around the tomb of my grandmother, Aurora A. Quezon.
“She’s not very approachable,” one said.
“What do you mean,” I asked, curious.
“She’s not arrogant, butÂ -withdrawn, she only will speak when spoken to: She likes her peace and quiet and wonders why we’re all here.”
Another one stood back and informed the group, “She doesn’t like us talking to her in English.”
I was surprised. They shifted to Tagalog. One described her “she always held a fan in her left hand:Â¦ And she is at peace, but she comes back from time to time, often in the company of a young woman.”
Describe the woman, I asked.
“About thirty, with Spanish features. And curly hair.”
What about the hair, I asked again.
“Curly, even very tight curls, and a different sort of brown: Chestnut.”
I was, for the second time in less than two hours, taken aback. Outside from people who knew my grandmother’s eldest daughter, who was also killed with her in 1949, no one today knows that my eldest aunt had curly, almost kinky (in the African-American sense of the word) hair -and chestnut colored.
“She is always worried about her children, she seems to be worried about them all the time, and to keep coming back to make sure her descendants are living up to what she felt would be right.”
I stood aside, quietly, by my father’s tomb, noting all of this. How true it all sounded.
From our family’s plot we just had to take a few steps to reach the small rotonda where rests President Manuel Roxas, his widow Dona Trining Roxas, his son Senator Gerardo Roxas, and his grandson, Rep. Gerardo Roxas Jr. President Roxas’s tomb, at one time identical to Quezon’s, was renovated about ten years ago.
Again, the Questors hesitantly approached the tomb, and placed their left hands on it.
They got mostly images. Of a man sitting behind an official desk. The man handing papers to a tall, white-haired, distinguished looking American.
The first American Ambassador, Paul Voreis McNutt, perhaps, I asked myself.
Another image, of the man sitting at his desk, shoulders slumped, crushed by the problems of the nation. Yet another, of the President sweating heavily, trying to get out of his tomb -allegorical? Though one said he was no longer there but at peace. A few sensed heat, as they did at the tomb of the Johnsons -a sign of great energy, though whether positive or negative seemed hard to tell. The Questors seemed agitated. I decided we should move on.
We got into our vehicles and proceeded down the main avenue and turned left, to the shoddily repainted Mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution. Over the years, this, one of the oldest and most striking of the structures erected at the cemetery, has been emptied of many of its famous dead; its noble architecture marred by slipshod paintjobs over the past few years.
We proceeded in inside. The Questors were suddenly all abuzz. They were looking at the floor.
The Mausoleum is a box-like structure with a dome; beneath the dome is a patterned floor, much damaged, heavily scarred, very badly patched up with cheap cement. The Questors excitedly looked at the floor and called out to their mentor.
It seemed the structure was full of occult symbols, as was appropriate for a turn of the century structure constructed when Freemasonry was still a potent force in the country, and many of whose members had been leaders of the Revolution.
The Questors pondered the “Å“magic circle.” Their mentor walked to the center of it and they all talked of a strong sense of power.
Tony Perez, standing in the middle of the circle, called me over.
“Look,” he said, softly, pointing to a small compass strapped to his wrist. “Look at the compass, and now look at the main entrance and the two other side entrances. They are oriented toward the cardinal directions.”
I was impressed.
“Now look,” he said, pointing at the dome. “You see the details at the corners of the dome, where the circle meets the square of the main structure?”
Yes, I replied.
“They are oriented at the points of the compass, too. They are triangles right? Notice how each one corresponds to a direction: North East, South East, South West…”
The Questors all agreed that this was a place built by people with a strong belief in the occult; in its rituals. They were nervous.
Someone suggested they leave, they were not welcome; one added it was obvious that those who had built the mausoleum had cast a very strong spell on it -“this place has been ‘warded’ you see, there is a protective circle cast around it.”
“We are not wanted here,” one told me, as we hurried out.
From there we walked some more until we reached the necropolis -there is no other word for such a well-ordered, beautifully designed, and extensive family burial ground- of the Nakpils. Each tomb is beautiful, those dating from before World War II being extremely beautiful examples of Art Deco and Art Nuveau, in cement, marble, and granite. Our objective was to visit the tomb, located in the main Art Nuveau pylon of the Nakpil family plot, of Gregoria de Jesus, widow of Andres Bonifacio, who had remarried a Nakpil.
One Questor had glimpses of her riding on a horse; another said it seemed that she loved her first husband more; a third said: “She is laughing.”
Laughing, I asked, quite incredulously.
“Yes, she is laughing. She knows that the truth is known and she has been vindicated.”
A reaction, perhaps, to the tragic circumstances of her husband’s death, I surmised.
There was not much else the Questors could say; so I took them to the simple tomb, actually the second tomb, for he had been moved from one obscure part of the North Cemetery to a more prominent one about a decade ago, of Francis Burton Harrison. He was the only American Governor-General who became a Filipino citizen and chose to be buried in the country.
Agitation among the Questors. Many sensed water; a sign -but of what? A turbulent lack of peace. One hinted that Harrison was upset. Had he been buried with a medal?
I didn’t know.
It seems he was angry over something having been taken from him, from his coffin. We could only surmise that in the transfer of his remains, someone had stolen something from the corpse; something important that had been buried with the man. They all sensed anger; frustration. One sensed even hatred. Bitterness.
“But he admired so many aspects of the Filipinos,” a Questor said.
We moved on, to our final stop, the tomb of Claro M. Recto. For the first time since the tomb of Magsaysay, the Questors sensed complete and utter peace.
I was surprised; I had thought the sadness of dying away from his native land would have haunted the tomb of Recto.
One questor told me, no, he is totally at peace -â€œbut he is cradling a boy, a baby.”
Another walked off with a puzzled expression: “I sense a car accident, or a motorcyle accidentÂ¦ Not Recto, but someone close to him, someone very dear to him, that’s whom he’s cradling.”
The eldest son of Claro M. Recto had died in a vehicular accident.
But besides this small glimpse into paternal love, nothing else: this was a man content, with no regrets, no worries, his deeds done, his spirit not restless or filled with conflicting emotions.
A good way to end the day. Five hours had passed; we were all soaked. It had rained; the sun had come out, then it had rained again; I was beginning to lose my voice.
To wrap things up I asked them what their impressions were.
One told me that she didn’t realize such a place existed. Another said, with some awe, that he had no idea so many well know personages were in one cemetery. Everyone knew of the Libingan ng mga Bayani -but who would think that here, in a public cemetery, would be the great, the known, and tombs of such variety, from the magnificent to the humble, to the occult to the purely religious.
They said it was a voyage of discovery for them; I thanked them. They seemed pleased to have literally been able to touch history.
That afternoon I saw something rare, particularly in people their age: a sort of selflessness that isn’t based on a naive desire to be heroic, or on a desire to appear to do good while gratifying their own egos. In Tony Perez himself, I found nothing of the self-absorbed, self-conscious auteur attitude that irritates me; indeed I found him a gracious, cultivated, rather reserved man. Quietly self-assured and yet compassionate.
We’re used to hearing about what people usually term the “exploits” of the Spirit Questors; they have received publicity verging on the hysterical; people follow their doings with a sort of morbid curiosity and much of what is written on them verges on the sensationalistic. But for every quest they undertake -and only upon the invitation of someone who asks for their help- they do so much more, quietly and sincerely, giving up their Saturdays in order to use their gifts to help bring consolation and peace to many, many people.
I was impressed with their ease of manner and the way they were equally at ease with abilities -some would call them powers- that would make most people uncomfortable or provoke hostile skepticism in others. I do not trust people who lack a sense of humor and refreshingly enough, their seriousness when it came to their obvious intention to use their abilities responsibly and respectfuly was balanced with a healthy sense of humor. The particular group I met, if they are representative of the Spirit Questors as a whole, should be a source of pride for the Spirit Questors themselves and their mentor, Tony Perez, in particular.
Anyone who shows an interest in what is considered the occult, and in particular anyone claiming to posess gifts that enable them to either communicate with the departed, detect elementals, or sense (by way of seeing in their mind) past events related to a particular location or the life of someone now dead, is more likely than not subject to being viewed as either a source of grisly entertainment or of silly amusement. Whatever your views on the matter, this is wrong. Particularly when the two most objectionable aspects of the occult as we are familiar with it -a thirst for money and a grasping desire to make people regular customers- is absent. More than what they do, it is what they don’t do that impressed me most about the Spirit Questors. As I said, they do not go out and bug people to engage their services; best of all, they refuse any recompense for what they do. If you are a person who honestly beleives you could use their help, you must approach them; and when they have done all they can do, they will never ask you for money, and if you offer them a monetary reward they will firmly, but politely, turn you down. They do what they do, as one of them explained to me, because they recognize they have abilities other people don’t, and it is their duty to use their abilities for the good of other people.
To think that what we read of the Spirit Questors is a fraction of what they do, week after week, and you have to give them credit for dedication.