The long-lived beautiful matriarch of a very grand Manila family — Josephine Murphy de Cojuangco, also known as “Dona Nene” — passed away at 98 years old early last week at 5:00 a.m.. By 8:00 a.m., word had been discreetly sent out to relatives and close friends as well as to the people of the legendary Cojuangco family seat in Paniqui, Tarlac. The old people in Paniqui — various lifelong retainers and other employees — bowed their heads in mourning and remembrance, saying: “Wala na ang Dona Nene, wala na ang kahuli-huliang manugang ng Dona Sidra.” [ “Dona Nene is no more, gone is the last surviving niece-in-law of Dona Sidra.” ]
By dusk, all of affluent Manila already knew about her passing and they promptly prepared themselves to offer condolences to the very prominent family — one of the last, great, and powerful of the venerable old Filipino business and political dynasties.
Because of Dona Nene’s wishes for a very simple, quiet, and quick funeral, as well as the Cojuangco family’s desire for privacy, it took a few days before formal death notices for the Filipino public — whole page ones — appeared in the major newspapers, with the assent of the eldest son, Eduardo Murphy Cojuangco Jr. also known as “Danding,” one of the Philippines’ most powerful men.
The beautiful matriarch had been a formidable force in the family. Born to an American-Irish-Canadian father and an Ilocano mother, Josephine “Nene” Murphy y Beley grew up in Baguio. She was courted by the young Eduardo “Endeng” Cojuangco y Chichioco, the gentleman farmer scion of a very rich Chinese-Filipino “hacendero” family from Paniqui, Tarlac but her father objected. They forthwith eloped. The happy marriage was blessed with six children [ three boys and three girls ] but ended early with her husband’s unnecessary and untimely demise in his early 40s in 1952. She and her children were consequently sidelined in the vast business affairs of her husband’s family by the elder, more assertive members. Being a highly-disciplined person, she mustered all her resources and efficiently managed her husband’s businesses. She raised her children well with an iron will. Two decades later, the family fortunes turned for the better and her favorite eldest son “Danding” gradually became one of the country’s most powerful men.
She was laid in state in the biggest mortuary chapel of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel along Broadway Avenue in New Manila, a church of which she was a major benefactress from its earliest years to the present. Her last gifts were the new stained glass windows of the church.
Inside the mortuary chapel, the elegant casket was closed. According to her daughters, Dona Nene was arrayed in an elegant long dress by couturier Roy Gonzales of R. T. Paras; she clasped a rosary from Rome blessed during the 03 June 2007 Canonization of Saint Marie-Eugenie de Jesus [ Anne-Eugenie Milleret de Brou ], foundress of the Religious of the Assumption, given by Mikey and Lizette Cojuangco [ son of her nephew Ramon Uychuico Cojuangco and Imelda de la Paz Ongsiako ]. On top of it was an exquisite round arrangement by Margarita Araneta Fores’ “Fiori d M” of several hundred white cattleya orchids flown in from the Eduardo Cojuangcos’ “Hacienda Balbina” in Pontevedra, Negros Occidental [ the gardeners had been instructed by Gretchen Oppen-Cojuangco to pick every single cattleya bloom in the plantation for her mother-in-law’s wreath ]; many of the white cattleyas were of the “Dona Josephine Cojuangco” variety registered internationally. Below the casket was an elegant mass of several hundred white “Casablanca” lilies. Beside the casket was a luminous, recent oil portrait of the very beautiful Dona Nene by the discreet Spanish mestizo artist Rafael del Casal [ a favorite of genuine Manila high society ], as she looked prewar. There was also a small, draped table with small framed photographs showing Nene with her husband Endeng and their children.
Before the closed casket was transferred from the mortuary chapel to the church for the funeral mass, heiress-restaurateur-florist Margarita “Gaita” Araneta Fores — whose maternal grandmother Ester Araneta de Araneta was a great friend of Dona Nene’s; the two were part of a group of patrician ladies [ Pacita “Nitang” Moreno de Lopez, Aida Lopez Laguda-Sotto, Amparo Lopez-Pineda, Lolit de la Rama-Lopez, the Tanjangco sisters, et. al.; now all gone ] who liked to play the traditional, old-fashioned card game of “panguingue” — herself directed the arrangement of the bier in front of the main altar, imparting her famous exquisite taste to the final ceremonies of her grandmother’s great friend. The last time Dona Nene and her great friend Dona Ester saw each other was at the ladies’ room of a restaurant where both families were having lunch. Not long after, Dona Ester passed away but Dona Nene was not informed so she would not be saddened. Dona Nene always wanted to visit Dona Ester, but excuses were always made by family members to prevent her doing so, until she herself passed away.
Aware of the maxim that “too many cooks spoil the broth,” that there would probably be too many members of the family “calling the shots,” Danding Cojuangco unilaterally decided that his niece, Dr. Isa Cojuangco Suntay-Dister, would be the COO chief operating officer of Dona Nene’s last rites. After all, being the only doctor in the family, she had taken good care of her Lola Nene throughout the years…
Just hours before the funeral mass [ the day before the actual funeral ], Dr. Isa flew the ECJ helicopter to faraway Paniqui, Tarlac to oversee the preparations there. Paniqui Mayor Dors Cojuangco Rivilla was on top of the situation. His mother, Lourdes “Lulu” Uychuico Cojuangco-Rivilla [ daughter of Antonio Cojuangco and Victoria Uychuico, Nene’s in-laws ] had already arrived from Manila to assist him with further preparations.
The congregation during the funeral mass represented the very best of Filipino families, not only in terms of sheer wealth and influence, but also in terms of high education, moral uprightness, cosmopolitan personal style, and surprisingly enough, good looks. There were beautiful women and handsome men all over.
The eulogy delivered by her eldest son, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Murphy Cojuangco Jr. was the loving tribute of a powerful — almost omnipotent — man to his revered mother: “My only fear is that what I will say may not be able to do her justice.”
“I carry my father’s name but everything else I am, I owe to my mother…”
After the funeral mass, there was an elegant dinner catered by Margarita Fores. Then the family and their friends took leave of each other to rest a few hours in preparation for the 5:00 a.m. departure for the ancestral domain of the Cojuangcos in Paniqui, Tarlac.
The early 5:00 a.m. departure from Mount Carmel church for Paniqui, Tarlac was the thoughtful decision of “Danding” so his mother’s funeral cortege would not cause traffic in the city, the NLEX North Luzon Expressway, and the MacArthur highway. So determined was Danding to leave the Mount Carmel Church at exactly 5:00 a.m. that he had left his wife Gretchen behind, still preparing herself, at their Balete Drive residence — “I will not have my mother wait for anyone.” Gretchen finally caught up with the rest of the family at the Santa Rosa de Lima Church in Paniqui, Tarlac.
Meanwhile, in Paniqui town in Tarlac, trucks had been delivering cement and asphalt 24 / 7 as the main roads were hurriedly repaired. The torrential rains had caused the first two layers of cement to be washed over and third layers had to be applied. The old Santa Rosa de Lima Church had been repainted and new lights were installed 24 / 7 in time for the funeral mass of the town’s beloved “Dona Nene.”
As planned, the funeral cortege of 50 cars proceeded smoothly from Manila because of the early hour. All the toll fees of the many cars that composed the cortege had been settled in advance. When they reached the first town of Bamban, Tarlac, they were met by escorts as the cortege, which had increased to 150 cars and grew longer with every municipality it passed, proceeded to Paniqui town.
The rains were so heavy in Tarlac that the six siblings thought of postponing the funeral of their mother.
The funeral mass was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. at the Santa Rosa de Lima church.
“Meldy [ Imelda Ongsiako-Cojuangco ], Monching’s wife, wanted to come all the way from Manila for the funeral. But we told her that she didn’t have to because of her delicate health; we understood her situation. After all, she’s a walking time bomb with two aneurysms. If either or both of those explode… !!! Meldy kindly sent her children in her stead.”
“It was so nice to have representatives of the other two surviving branches of the [ Cojuangco ] family present at the funeral mass: Tio Pepe’s, Tio Antonio’s, and ours. Peping had just come from a trip abroad and had rushed to Paniqui with Tingting and his two daughters for the funeral mass. Lulu’s family was there, Monching’s too. And of course, all of us, including our children and grandchildren, were there for Mama.”
At the church, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. delivered another stirring eulogy in amazingly fluent, flawless Kapampangan and Ilokano, the dialects spoken by generations of the Cojuangco family.
“Dona Nene” was interred alongside her husband, Eduardo “Endeng” Cojuangco y Chichioco, at the legendary Cojuangco “ermita” chapel / mausoleum in Sitio Caniogan, Barangay Matalapitap, the very “barrio” where, more than a hundred years ago, the pioneering patriarch Ingkong Jose and his children Ysidra, Melecio, and Trinidad Cojuangco y Estrella slowly settled after their transfer from Barasoain, Malolos, Bulacan. For years after Eduardo’s death, his faithful widow “Nene” ordered holy mass at the “ermita” every 13th of the month which she, usually accompanied by her youngest daughter Isabel, would travel the long distance from Manila to attend.
After the interment, the family hosted a luncheon for everyone who had condoled with them. Manila’s longtime premiere caterer “Via Mare” catered lunch for 1,500 guests. The popular “Red Ribbon” bakeshop catered the subsequent “merienda.” Lunch was also served to 1,000 mourners gathered outside the restricted premises. Packed lunches were also distributed to some 8,000 sympathizers. Paniquenos ventured that, had it not rained torrentially, some 40,000 Tarlaquenos had planned to attend the funeral of their beloved Dona Nene Cojuangco.
Like his five siblings Manuel “Manoling,” Henry, Mercedes “Ditas,” Aurora “Rory,” and Isabel, Ambassador Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. tirelessly attended to the very many friends of the family present during the final rites for their well-loved mother “Dona Nene”: “Pasensya na po kayo sa kaunting nakayanan ng aming pamilya…”
It was a loving farewell with such dignity and grace, tempered by patrician understatement. One instinctively knew that it had taken decades of affluence and education to achieve that kind of discernment and distinction.
COJUANGCO IN EXCELSIS.