Online grieving has now become a part of the “new normal.” Photo from PixaBay
Culture Spotlight

The sad but urgent reality of the online burol

When Bocaue’s beloved Mayor Joni Villanueva passed away at the height of the health crisis, this friend experienced what it’s like to grieve for someone through the Internet. By EVELYN O. KATIGBAK
ANCX | Jul 15 2020

“Online burol” was a death care company’s hit marketing campaign back in 2007, primarily because a wake’s livestreaming was something novel then—and people thought the catchy phrase “online burol” was funny. Today, amid a global pandemic where mobility is limited and our expression of sorrow is done in isolation, online grieving becomes clearly a part of the “new normal.”

Losing a loved one is painful. To most of us, the pain is somehow eased when the pain is shared and we extend and, likewise, receive comfort. Our visits to a wake enable us not only to comfort the bereaved family members, but also to comfort ourselves knowing that we are given the chance to pay our last respects to our dear departed.

As we know, not all deaths are caused by COVID-19. But even in non-COVID-related deaths, the rituals we used to know in order to grieve for our loss and honor our dead have been significantly altered. In the early days of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the government limited the holding of a wake to one or two nights and visits strictly for immediately family members. As the quarantine measures relaxed a little, the number of visitors allowed in a wake was increased, but physical distancing remained a strict policy. Losing someone to death these days is doubly painful. We grieve in isolation.

I lost a very dear friend in the midst of this pandemic. I have known Mayor Joni Villanueva of Bocaue, Bulacan years before she became a town mayor. But our friendship was strengthened during her tenure as a mayor. She had a big vision for their small town. Being a natural strategic thinker, she had specific plans on how to accomplish the vision. Every now and then, she would ask me to help her document or put into writing her plans, and pray for them. 

To the best of my knowledge, Mayor Joni was the only first-termer Mayor in the country to have built a local government’s public hospital and the first Mayor in Bulacan to have a municipality ISO 9001:2015 certified. She was also the first local executive to have targeted mass testing for COVID-19. Without any media blitz, Bocaue started its mass testing for medical frontliners and local suspected cases last March 30.

Mayor Joni died of complications from vasculitis. Many of those who wished to pay their last respects – the ones coming from outside Bocaue or Bulacan – were unable to go to the wake in Bocaue because of the quarantine restrictions. It helped that the nightly necrological services were streamed via Facebook Live.  Messages of condolences for the family and short eulogies for Mayor Joni were posted at the comment section while the program was being streamed.  

For Bocaueños, they organized their own version of Luksang Bayan and Luksang Parangal to honor the Mayor they suddenly lost. Uniquely, these events – organized through suggestions on Facebook – were held throughout the town, without the residents having to leave their respective houses. All they needed to do was to go in front of their houses, light a candle for Mayor Joni, and express their gratitude for the Mayor’s dedicated service to Bocaue. Bocaueños documented their participation in these events by posting their pictures on Facebook or by doing Facebook Live.

For me, and perhaps also for those whose relationship with Mayor Joni was more personal, online grief was communicated by posting on Facebook anecdotes about and personal memories with Mayor Joni as a form of online eulogy. While the post was individual, comments from our common friends made it a collective celebration of the life of Mayor Joni, as well as a collective tribute to honor her memory.

While we all mourned in isolation, we connected with other mourners through Facebook. In the language of communication scholars, ours is called the “digital bereavement communities.” We shared the same loss, the same pain, the same need to be consoled, and the same wish to also offer condolences – all these through the digital space. #OnlineGrief is real.

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This experience was not unique to us. We have heard of people who passed on during this close to four months of quarantine. We may not know them personally, but we know that for the family and friends that they left behind, holding or attending a wake has been extra difficult.

It took quite a while before Filipinos seriously accepted the need for online burol. The acceptance of online grief cannot be slowed down. This is a very urgent need. Because death is a sure thing and the pain of loss is as sure.

 

Evelyn O. Katigbak is a doctoral student of Communication at the College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman.