Willy's wake in the Philippines.

An American’s brief visit to a Philippine wake

For the first time, I attended a Philippine wake and it was incredibly different from my experiences in American culture. I am not saying it’s better than, or less than. It’s simply different. That said, I respect two huge differences that moved me.

And it’s ironic, because I’ve been thinking about death lately — specifically about how it’s something we Westerners don’t really talk about.

As a breast cancer warrior active in social media support groups, I know many women who are in Stage 4 of breast cancer. They will die from it. Their sharing about their eventual death in these private groups sparks candid emotion in me. I try to imagine what it might be like to anticipate your own death through illness. After all, that might be my own fate.

Dying from a long illness and anticipating someone’s death, is quite different from death of a loved one by a traumatic event, such as a crash.

No matter if death was expected or not, facing death in American culture now seems somewhat… sanitized to me, in contrast to what I have just witnessed in the Philippines.

I went to a wake for a man named Willy. He sold fish by walking around Malay Municipality.

I’d seen him in Balusbos, his own barangay or village, in Motag, Cubay Norte, and other places along the main road through this rural-ish area. Also, on the beach. One time, he had given me shells he collected.

Willy was struck by a driver while walking in Malay proper. He went to a hospital in the provincial capital Kalibo, 90 minutes to two hours away. Willy died a few days after the crash.

I previously wrote about how on the day Willy was hit, I bought fish from him.

He was related to some of the kids and teens I visit each week in Balusbos.

Every time I saw Willy, he was smiling, just as he is in the photo below from his family.

In the Philippines, with many different islands and regions, and historic influences such as Spanish, American, and Chinese, there are many traditions related to death.

Here, on Panay Island in the Visayas, the corpse is in an ‘open’ coffin (under a glass plate) in the family’s home for an extended period of time, usually three to seven days — or more.

Willy’s body was in the first room of his family’s modest beachfront home. The family welcomed me.

The room was covered with white curtains on the walls and ceiling. A rug was placed under the coffin, and candles, a bible, and flowers were placed near Willy’s white coffin. There were white plastic chairs across the small, concrete-walled room.

There I sat, in the room with Willy. I prayed, and listened.

I didn’t stay too long – the kids were outside the doorway trying to sneak peaks at me as the family shooed them away.

When I was seven years old, my grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. She was 57 years old. It was the second experience with ‘death’ that I can remember (my great-grandfather ‘Poppy’ being the first).

I didn’t understand death or funerals or wakes, but I knew my parents were going to ‘say goodbye’ to my grandma, and I wanted to go, too. They said no.

I remember my mother telling someone (the babysitter?) ‘she doesn’t need to see that’ and it was ‘better to remember her grandmother alive’. Also, I’m sure it was tough enough for mom to grieve her mother without her daughter tagging along asking questions.

In American culture, young children often are kept from death services. But here in the Philippines, right outside the doorway to Willy’s home and coffin, were children the same age I was when my grandmother died. These children are allowed to process death and grief as a part of life. There’s no “protection.”

One of the children I visit, and just outside the doorway to Willy’s visitation, is named Irish. She’s the age I was when my grandmother died. She does not speak much English. But a few days ago, she tapped my arm, looked up at me, said ‘Willy’, tilted her head and closed her eyes to imitate sleeping, and then looked up to they sky and pointed with a smile. ‘Willy’ Irish said, again.

As the coffin is in a village home, and as Irish knows the family members, death will be a topic of ongoing discussion with the child.

Another huge difference from America: Willy’s body in the white coffin, in the white curtained room with flowers and candles and scripture, will be there for many days. I’m not sure when visitation started, but his funeral mass isn’t until November 11. In American, the dead are buried fast.

The extended wake time in a family’s home gives distant family members time to arrive. They often travel by boat and bus. And a wake is held in a family’s home instead of a funeral home because funeral homes are expensive, and also because it’s easier for the family to keep vigil near the body.

Families and friends of the deceased will sit near the coffin for these vigils. In Willy’s case, the family sat outside under a tarp at tables. This area for the family is for bonding over the death – for strengthening ties in life. Family members take turns sitting together. Traditionally, families will talk, sing, play cards and the like to bond, to honor their loved one, to pass the time of mourning.

There are many other traditions I don’t understand or have not experienced – such as 40 days of mourning and grave site traditions. From my limited view so far, these were the two main differences in outward grief: the wake in the family’s home with an ‘open’ casket; visitation lasts for an extended period of time.

As a foreigner, I felt like I was intruding even though I was warmly welcomed by more than a dozen people, including my Balusbos gang. I offered my deepest condolences. And I had brought a loaf of bread I baked from scratch, along with a jar of store-bought jam. An offering for the living – to break bread while honoring the dead.

Yes, I’m the strange Caucasian American woman with no breasts, on the outside. On the inside, I’m simply a soul on Earth learning about life and humanity one experience, one country, one day at a time.

Rest in peace, Willy. Thank you for your kindness, your smiles, the shells, your fish sales.

And thank you to Willy’s family for welcoming me in to honor Willy’s spirit.

Thanks for reading, “An American’s brief visit to a Philippine wake.”

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  1. Thank you for sharing Ellen. Your experience will not go unnoticed and will be remembered by many. Rest well Willy. May we hope to circle again…

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