Palaces of the dead

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

I have spent the entire week immersed in what is arguably the most exhausting experience every person on earth can count on having to endure at least once in his or her life: dealing with the death of a close family member. My wife’s mother, who lived with us, died — peacefully, by all appearances — early Tuesday morning after falling ill on Monday.

The business of death is actually quite fascinating; those of us who are not in that business do not often realize that, of course, being immersed in more personal concerns at the time we are interacting with it, but it actually is.

And why not; ceremonial end-of-life rites are considered one of the most fundamental indicators of an organized society. As death is something every one of us will experience at least once, the end-of-life trade is one of the very few with an absolute demand; here in the Philippines, where old-world religion and vestiges of tribal culture have combined to create a complex, fairly rigid set of traditions, it is obviously a very active trade.

According to the 2010 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry (ASPBI), the most recent data available through government websites, there are roughly 700 companies in the funeral business throughout the Philippines that handle about 495,000 “customers” every year, which is an average of about 1,350 people per day. Revenues for the funeral industry reached P2.7 billion in 2010, according to the ASPBI, against costs of P2 billion; this represents an industry-wide margin of just under 26 percent—not the most profitable business in the world, but certainly not an unattractive one from a financial standpoint.

The job is obviously not easy; the services that must be included in a typical funeral here in the Philippines are extensive: Transporting and preparing the deceased person’s body, providing a comfortable setting for family and friends to hold a vigil, often for several days, assisting the next of kin in meeting the legal requirements of filing a death certificate and obtaining whatever burial permits or other clearances are needed from the local government unit, and organizing the final funeral services and disposition of the remains.

All of it must be done with careful respect for the religious beliefs of the deceased and his or her family, and as an added challenge, the clients are very likely not in the best frame of mind to be rational or cooperative customers, nor are they likely to be financially prepared for a large, unexpected expense.

Little wonder, then, that the industry is viewed with some suspicion by many potential—or to be completely accurate, inevitable— customers. Opportunities for abusive practices are abundant, a problem which is further aggravated by the fact that funeral service providers tend to create their own natural monopoly; the first business into an area has a huge competitive advantage, simply because potential customers are extremely unlikely to “shop around” given the upsetting circumstances in which they suddenly find themselves.

The biggest problem the industry faces, however, especially in densely populated countries like the Philippines, is one that it cannot solve entirely on its own: lack of space. The palaces of the dead occupy a considerable amount of land, and in most cities in this country, cemetery crowding long ago passed the crisis point.

Manila’s North Cemetery has even gained a bit of worldwide renown for rather ghoulishly having a sizable living population competing for space with its dead one. Changing deep-seated cultural characteristics—such as the special reverence Filipinos and Asians in general hold for their dearly departed, which for many people requires that a ‘sacred’ spot be designated for the deceased loved one—is a daunting task and one that must be handled with extreme sensitivity. Nevertheless, it is a matter of hard reality that the issue be addressed, and soon—land is a finite resource, and continuing to reserve it for what is a thoroughly unproductive purpose is unwise, and unfair to future generations.

While I have no complaints about the overall manner in which my family’s recent transaction with the funeral industry was handled—on that note, Funeraria Samson of Imus, Cavite deserves an acknowledgement for managing a distressing situation in a fair and considerate way—it would be better if the funeral industry took a more proactive approach to encouraging people to choose more environment- and population- and economy-friendly alternatives to the conventional cemetery. The best part of our departed loved ones—our memories of them—do not, after all, actually require a lot of space.

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On a slightly more upbeat, but still somehow vaguely related note, I’d like to make a “media experience” recommendation. I say “media experience” rather than simply “reading” because Civil War Truce—Remarkable Little-Known Story of Sister Lucy is a uniquely new form of literature. It is a multi-media presentation (available through Amazon and all the usual mobile app stores) produced by Davis Studio that tells the remarkable story of Sister Mary Lucy Dosh, a young nun who served as a nurse for wounded soldiers in Kentucky during the early part of the American Civil War, and whose tragic death inspired both sides of a divided nation. Whether you’re interested in American history, uplifting tales of people making a difference, or simply want to see an excellently produced example of what may be the “next big thing” in media, Civil War Truce is a fascinating piece of work, and I highly recommend it. Find out more at

And finally, my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of our friends who expressed their condolences and comforted my family in other ways during this stressful week.


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1 Comment

  1. We are so sorry for the loss of your mother-in-law. The eldery bring such a blessing to us with wisdom about life, it is wonderful that she had a chance to live your family. I will keep your whole family in my prayers. Also, in the middle of it all, how very kind you took the time to review our app and to write such a thoughtful and kind review. Thank you so very much for your words. Sincerely, Marie and Margaret