Were Rizal’s burial wishes honored?
Today (Monday) is the 117th anniversary of the martyrdom of Dr. Jose Rizal. It is also the centennial of the inauguration of the bronze-and-granite monument erected in his honor at Manila’s 58-hectare Rizal Park. Originally called “Motto Stella” (“Guiding Star”), it is better known now as the Rizal Monument.
In the monument’s base are entombed the remains of the hero. The pedestal carries the bronze sculpture of the hero in his trademark overcoat, gazing toward the Manila Bay, a book in his left hand.
An obelisk, topped with three gold stars, backdrops the statue. Behind the statue, to the hero’s right, a mother nurses her baby while, to his left, two boys read.
Ninety-nine meters away to the north of the monument are the grounds hollowed by the blood of patriots. It was there that the hero fell on his back, face up welcoming the blue sky that fateful morning of Dec. 30, 1896.
Of the monuments in the country, the most iconic and historic is the “Motto Stella.” It has stood there continuously for 100 years. Not only did it survive World War II but it also saved lives.
The monument and its trenches shielded civilians, including babies, from the fierce battle to liberate Manila from the Japanese in 1945. And now, bathed in peace and bright lights, the hero and the remains enshrined in the monument are given honors by a four-man ceremonial guard from the Philippine Marine Corps 24 hours a day.
The monument is simple, solemn, dignified. And it is the tribute of a people to the martyr who expressed the spirit of their nation at its best.
But the “Motto Stella” is not the first monument to honor the hero. That distinction belongs to the monument unveiled in Daet, Camarines Norte, on Dec. 30, 1898.
That very same month, Spain, the old colonial power in swift decline, finally gave up the Philippines. The United States, the new world power in swift ascent, bought the islands from Spain on Dec. 10, 1898 for $20 million under the Treaty of Paris.
But the Filipinos continued to struggle for independence and doggedly, resolutely fought the bitter Filipino-American War.
Aware that Filipinos held Rizal in deep respect, the United States sought to win their sympathy. By Sept. 28, 1901, the US Philippine Commission adopted Act No. 243. Its purpose was to honor Rizal by building a memorial at the Luneta. It created a commission to undertake and finance the project through popular subscription.
The commission enlisted prominent Filipinos as members, including Paciano Rizal, the hero’s brother. The estimated amount for the monument was P100,000 and the insular government kick-started the fundraising by donating P30,000.
By 1905, the goal had been reached. When the popular subscription finally closed in August 1912, the total collection had reached P135,195.61. The Filipinos themselves had funded the project.
From 1905 to 1907, the commission held an international competition to select the final design. On Jan. 8, 1908, the jury selected the winner out of 40 entries. It chose the “Al Martir de Bagumbayan” (“To the Martyr of Bagumbayan”) submitted by Carlo Nicoli of Italy. The “Motto Stella,” designed by Richard Kissling of Switzerland, came second.
But the “Al Martir de Bagumbayan” was never built. It had been said that Nicoli failed to post the performance bond of P20,000, did not sign the contract on time, or his price quotation was higher than that of Kissling’s. In the event, the contract was awarded to Kissling for the “Motto Stella.”
Today the “Motto Stella” stands 14 meters high from its platform in Rizal Park. The hero did not ask for a tall memorial to honor his death. The question then may be asked whether he wrote any burial wishes and whether they were honored.
Rizal was sentenced to die in the early morning of Dec. 29, 1896. With knowledge of certain death, he wrote from Fort Santiago an undated letter to his family.
He said: “Dear parents, brother, sisters: Give thanks to God who has kept me tranquil, before my death…. Bury me in the earth, put a stone on top, and a cross. My name, the date of my birth, and that of my death. Nothing more. If later you wish to surround my grave with a fence, you can do it. No anniversary celebrations! I prefer Paang Bundok.”
“Paang Bundok” was the cemetery north of Manila, now known as the North Cemetery.
But the Rizal family never received the letter. Moreover, on Dec. 28, 1896, Doña Teodora Alonso, the hero’s mother, went to Malacañang to plead with Governor General Camilo de Polavieja. She was refused admission.
There was no one else to turn to and there were no burial instructions to read. So the family made other preparations.
Doña Teodora sought from one official to another permission to take care of her son’s body after the execution. All refused except the mayor of Manila, Manuel Luengo. Hesitantly, he agreed but only on his own account.
Search for body
A coffin and a hearse were ordered. On the day of the execution, the family stayed home, waiting in silence and in prayer, until it was over.
To their disappointment and sorrow, they discovered that the body had been taken away from the Luneta shortly after the execution, with no one willing or able to say where it had been taken.
A long search in suburban graveyards, including Paang Bundok, yielded no burials that day. Narcisa, Rizal’s sister, finally came, late that afternoon, to the old and unused Paco Cemetery. And there, from a distance and unnoticed, she saw Mayor Luengo and several army officers inspecting a grave.
Narcisa was certain it contained her brother’s body. When the authorities left, she approached and found the freshly dug grave. It was unmarked. Requesting permission from the cemetery guard, she asked that a small, simple marble slab be placed on the grave.
For close to two years, the grave remained in relative anonymity. But on Aug. 13, 1898, Spain lost the mock battle for Manila and Commodore George Dewey of the United States took command of the city.
Narcisa lost no time. Four days later, she had the grave in Paco Cemetery dug. She found that her brother had been buried uncoffined, his clothes still recognizable. But his shoes had already disintegrated and whatever letter he said was inside was lost forever.
Cleaned and placed on an ivory urn, Rizal’s remains stayed with the family in Narcisa’s house in Binondo. Only 14 years later, in 1912, were they interred in the base of the “Motto Stella.” By then, the parents of Rizal were dead.
For 57 years since Rizal died, his family, as in fact the country, knew absolutely nothing about the undated letter and its burial wishes. The information came to light only in 1953.
That year, the Spanish foreign minister, Alberto Martin-Artajo y Alvarez, presented to the Philippine government Rizal documents that included the undated letter. It was therefore unthinkable that those burial wishes, unknown and unread, could have been carried out, faithfully and soon, after the execution.
Even had the family known about the letter then, State or Church might have seen the burial wishes in different light. The revolution was spreading, the popular Rizal had just been executed and pilgrimages to his grave might further inflame the passions of dissent.
And so, Manila Mayor Luengo reneged on his promise and prevented the family from taking the body. He had it buried secretly in the relative seclusion of the unused and walled Paco Cemetery where it could be more easily watched.
But something else happened. In the evening of Dec. 29, 1896, during the family’s last visit to Fort Santiago, Rizal gave to Trinidad, another sister, his small alcohol burner. Softly, the hero whispered to Trinidad in English, which she knew, that something was inside.
Immediately upon returning home, she and Maria, another sister of Rizal, rattled the burner and heard something inside. Using a hairpin, they pried out a small piece of paper through the narrow opening for the wick. It was a poem, untitled and undated. It came to be known as the “Mi Ultimo Adios.”
The hero was bidding family and country goodbye. He spoke of his grave in the context of future oblivion. But it was unmistakable: He wanted to be buried simply in the ground with a stone or a cross to mark the grave.
He said: “Y cuando ya mi tumba, de todos olvidada, No tenga cruz ni piedra que marquen su lugar, Deja que la ara el hombre, la esparza con la azada….” (Guillermo E. Tolentino’s translation: “At kapag ang libingan ko’y nalimutan na ng madla, Walang dipa, maging bato kabakasan niyong tanda, Bayaan mong bungkalin na’t isabog ng maglulupa….)
The night before the execution therefore his final testament and burial wishes had been read. And after the execution, the hero was buried into the earth with a slab of stone to mark his grave, exactly and simply as he wished.
His executioners might have dug the grave but it was the family, through the indomitable Narcisa, who ensured that his wished-for simple stone marker be placed on the grave.
In that instant, the family had given the burial the imprimatur of reverence. And Rizal’s burial wishes were honored.
Paang Bundok, a fence, and “no anniversary celebrations” were not mentioned in the Mi Ultimo Adios. They were never part of the farewell wishes.
Yet long before the execution, another thought, expressed in childhood innocence, proved strangely and accurately prophetic.
There is a story that when he was yet a little boy, his sisters Olimpia, Maria and Lucia caught him in the small nipa hut in the orchard behind their Calamba house. He was busily working on a figurine. They teased the little Rizal about his “junk” sculpture. He retorted that he was making a bust of a famous person. The sisters laughed at him and called him, in the vernacular, “hambug” (boastful).
“All right, laugh at me now. But when I die,” Rizal was said to have exclaimed, “see if people don’t make statues of me.”
More than a hundred years after his death, the Filipino people continue to bless his memory, commemorate his anniversaries and make statues and monuments in his honor. His achievements, many and immeasurable, have defined Filipino thought and remain touchstones of the nation’s modern life. And the “Motto Stella” reminds us all that it is so. Dr. Pablo S. Trillana III, Order of the Knights of Rizal and Philippine Historical Association
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.