Death and Dying in the Letters of José Rizal, a Conscious Hero

Construction began on la Tour Eiffel in January 1887, the brainchild of the engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel. In March 1887, Anne Sullivan began the painstaking yet monumental work of educating a deaf-blind girl named Helen Keller. In December 1887, the first two children of Klara and Alois Hitler died of diphtheria, although a son would be born to them two years hence. In parts of the world in 1887, men and women were crafting legacies that would endure into the twentieth century and shape a shifting new world.

Dr. Jose Rizal is widely recognized as the National Hero of the Philippines, although there is actually no law passed officially designating him so. This was his favorite portrait, taken in Madrid in 1890 by an Enrique Debas.

That same year, on the same continent as Eiffel, Sullivan, and the Hitlers, one physician was penning his own legacy, the first of two novels that would expose the centuries-long corruption of the Spanish government in its Southeast Asian colony. Later in 1896, the man was arrested and found guilty on the charge of being “the living soul of the insurrection in the Philippines.” He was executed by a firing squad of Filipino soldiers on the eve of the eve of 1897, supposedly to the chagrin and indignation of a people that was only realizing its national consciousness.

As per biological fact, everyone dies – but some deaths are deemed more consequential than others. Philippine historians tend to agree that the execution of Dr. José Rizal (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896) expedited the Filipinos’ clamor for independence from their colonial oppressors, a struggle that would only officially culminate in 1898. Such was the man’s legacy, and yet public historian Ambeth R. Ocampo claims that Rizal’s greatest misfortune was consequently becoming the Philippines’ unwritten national hero. In Ocampo’s anecdotal compilation of essays, Rizal Without the Overcoat, he explains:

Rizal is everywhere and yet he is nowhere. We see him everyday but we do not notice him…. [Maybe] if he were not so exalted we would pay him more attention.

The challenge, then, has remained time and time again this: to break Rizal free from the marble, bronze, and paper trappings within which he is cast and celebrated by a nation that is deeply fond of celebrities. That is, to remember that the hero is just as human as his admirers and detractors.


Outside populist spheres, the academe is far more nitpicky, and still not as successful. Ocampo takes this point further in another book, Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures:

Our problem is that we now have two Rizals in our consciousness, one is a historical Rizal and the other a mythical one, and it is the latter that dominates the popular consciousness. Rizal reflects the way we [Filipinos] think as a people. And, seeing how he has been… interpreted and misinterpreted, is a symptom of our obsessive search for an elusive national identity. Rizal is a central figure in the development of Philippine nationalism and yet, paradoxically, remains the greatest obstacle to its fulfillment.

One could argue that the quandaries and implications of Rizalian studies only further estrange José Rizal from his humanity. In a Heideggerian sense, as with most human beings, his life has nonetheless more meaning because it is time-bound. From a historian’s point of view, at least, Rizal’s life is best defined by his death.

If Rizal were allowed to speak for himself more often, i.e. through primary sources instead of via secondary sources, this might distill his insights on certain universal topics – for instance, death. A quote often cited by students comes from the character Elias in the novel Noli me tangere:

I die without seeing the dawn break on my country… You who are about to see it, greet her… [Do] not forget those who have fallen during the night!

When José Rizal is discussed in the same breath as death, it is usually in light of his nationalistic contributions for the country. However, when Rizal himself mentions death in his letters, it has a more universal application. It would seem that he often contemplated death as an opportunity to create meaning. For instance, a more personal insight is mixed in with financial problems in a missive dated July 9, 1890 to a propagandist friend Mariano Ponce:

One only dies once and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and does not present itself again.

Another Madrid portrait of Rizal is not as widely reproduced, although a copy is known to have survived with his friend Baldomero Roxas. If Rizal had indeed destroyed other copies of this less flattering photo, as Ambeth Ocampo suggests, does that make the former prophetic, conscious, or merely vain?

Two years after, Rizal was arrested for possessing anti-friar propaganda and was deported to Dapitan, in Mindanao. At this point, he surmised that his death was imminent, resulting in a farewell letter dated June 20, 1892 addressed to not one but all Filipinos. This take on death is charged with purpose, almost indignantly:

I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and our convictions. What matters death if one dies for what one loves, for native land and adored beings?

The letter ends with a dubious command:

Publish these letters after my death.

In contrast, other letters contained instructions that they should be burned after reading. José Rizal knew from the onset that he would become an important man: prophetic dreams and one anecdote involving a Napoleon Bonaparte statuette are symptoms of predestination to the easily superstitious. In the case of his correspondences, however, Rizal proactively ensured that people would only learn of him in a tailored way, under the presumption that there would be people who would study him at all.

Of course, his time had not yet come in 1892. A third letter dated July 31, 1894 expresses condolences for his close Austrian friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, whose father had passed away. According to Rizal here, death comes for everyone but it ought not to be treated as an object of fear. Rather, it is an inevitable respite from earthly affairs:

My parents are also old and some day they will also go! Yes, how lonely we shall be in this world! Blessed are those who rest at last!

Rizal was survived by both his parents, Teodora Alonzo (1827-1911?) and Francisco Mercado (1818-1897?). Here, Alonzo is cradling the skull of her son.

Rizal was not a prophetic hero; to say so would be to retain his mythical status in popular consciousness. He was merely a conscious man, aware that by dying from a highly-esteemed position, his political movements would have repercussions on the birth of the Philippine nation. Thus he prepared for what would happen after his death, even while he lived. Such preparations may be questionable: after all, how heroic is a man who curates his own life, who encourages only a specific self-image? Then again, how different is he from any of us today?

A legacy is that which is passed on to the next users of the planet; nationalism may or may not be Rizal’s. At the very least, his life bids us to remember that heroes are also human. His approach towards his life and death embody a simple, poignant truth, which is captured in the Latin expression memento mori. People who embroil themselves in worldly worries would do well to take comfort in the fact that in the end, there is rest.

Memento mori: remember you must die. This reminder of mortality may be morbid, though it may also be construed as a reminder to live. One’s death will only acquire meaning if one’s life has had meaning.