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By Icoy San Pedro

LAST Wednesday, we celebrated the forty days of my father’s passing. After prayers, those in the clan who could make it (being a workday), together with a few close friends of the family, all enjoyed a simple but hearty lunch in honor of this special day. 

Although admittedly not much of a devout Christian (and Roman Catholic at that) these days, I just realized that the reason and meaning of this forty days after someone’s death had already been lost on me. Still, I knew through both tradition and religious custom, that forty days after death was a very significant milestone. 

Since childhood, I must have witnessed more than a dozen of those novena prayers during wakes in Ponciano where, for a child’s ears, the drone-like recitation of prayers for the dead, usually articulated in the dialect, proved to be funny because of their sing-song quality. The fact that during those early days, the facilitation of these prayer vigils were delegated to very old women garbed in dark brown or black veils, also added to both our wonder and amusement as children.

But why forty, I strained to remember. I had to resort to going back to researching the importance of such a particular number of days. Of course, I knew as a fact that in the Philippines, funeral rites among us, Christians, are replete with elaborate mourning traditions. Especially more so if one goes further in the provinces. However, I still know it is still the same with other cultures. While involved in cultural research in my early years, I have become familiar with final rites of other indigenous cultures and faith. Yet, I’ve simply forgotten the importance of “forty” in mine. It had crossed my mind, why couldn’t it be any other number? 

So far, these are what I learned (and again remembered): From my good friend Wiki, “It is customary for another service to be given on the fortieth day after the death, as it is traditionally believed that the souls of the dead wander the Earth for forty days.” How could I have forgotten! That graphic image of a wandering soul roaming the earth for forty days and then ascending into the pearly gates to await judgment!  I suddenly remembered, that has been told to us, time and again when I was still in Grade two, by our beloved house help and ally, Manang Torina! Wait there’s more! The last stage of Christian mourning falls exactly one year after death, when it is lifted. This latter wiki offering, I will question, some other time.

For those seeped in numerology, it is the only number in English where its letters appear in alphabetical order. In terms of temperatures, minus 40 degrees, or “40 below,” is the only temperature that is the same in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. Whatever that means. 

Finally, in my short research, there must have been several reference to “Forty” that could likewise be found in other religions, from Hinduism, Islam to Yazidism. My only thought in the matter is this, how goes the journey, Pop? If you could, perhaps in a dream, enlighten me, why forty?



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