Crematorium workers struggle with more tasks, and the pain of witnessing rushed good-byes
Words and images by Bernard Testa
They’re used to the “drill” of helping grieving relatives give a proper sendoff to their dearly departed. They’d give them all the time they need to say their final good-byes, with their prayers and flowers and rosaries. These days, however, all those extended farewells are gone. Under strict health protocols prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, they must help those in mourning make swift goodbyes, before they cremate the dead.
For the staff at Eternal Gardens crematorium and memorial park in Baesa, Novaliches, what was already an emotionally difficult job has become more complicated—and physically risky—as people who died of Covid-19 must be cremated within 12 hours from death. Worse, even those whose cause of death was listed as pneumonia because they died before the Covid-19 tests were done or before the test results came out, must be considered like Covid-19, meaning, full precautions must be taken, and families restricted from holding wakes or long rituals as part of strict physical distancing.
Jay-Art Malano, Eternal Gardens, Baesa OIC manager, said the government did not want a repeat of a hospital incident when cadavers were reported to have piled up because there was no funeral parlor to take the dead.
According to Malano, crematoriums like Eternal Gardens have another problem: the shortage of urns, as suppliers from Romblon — the country’s marble capital — and Laguna have a hard time in the production and delivery of urns, owing to quarantine restrictions.
This has jacked up the prices of urns.
He said one option to address the shortage of urns is to give special permits to suppliers for the industry.
The government’s task force committed to keep the urns available as the govenment protocol for Covid-19 cause of death is cremation.
“There is a need to keep the supply of urns coming. Filipinos don’t want their deceased to be disposed of in a mass grave, as dead bodies in a refrigerated container vans will most likely get [that treatment], a mass disposal,” Malano said.
“We want a memory for our loved ones. Cremation is a decent send-off as opposed to mass disposal of cadavers,” Malano added.
Part of the job of Marinelle Garcia as a senior customer care coordinator at Eternal Gardens is to assist the grieving families in every way possible. But, she admits, that task has become infinitely more challenging with Covid-19.
For almost two months now, she has listened to the relatives of the deceased, explaining repeatedly that the new normal — i.e., restrictions on internment and viewing of the dead — is a government regulation because of the pandemic.
The staff at Eternal advise the mourners to practice one-meter physical distancing as well while avoiding mass gatherings. With certain limitations, brief wakes are allowed for non-Covid deaths, but with safety protocols.
As an example of how complicated her job has become these days, Marinelle shared: “There is this client that tells me that their deceased is not a Covid-19 [case] so don’ t treat them like one.” But she had to explain that they must strictly implement government guidelines on the number of relatives and vehicles for interment. “No more program. May mga nagagalit kasi hindi naman daw Covid-19, e bakit naka full gear. In-e-explain ko po kasi DOH protocol kailangan naka full gear ang interment and crematory services ng company [There are those who angrily ask why, if their dead are not Covid cases, do we have to wear full protective gear].”
Another story that tears at Marinelle’s heart was when the daughter of a deceased protested her father’s swift cremation. She cried because her father was cremated in Baesa crematorium, but she had wanted him buried in their lawn lot in Eternal Gardens.
Marinelle had to explain that funeral parlors are tasked to bring the cadaver from the hospital straight for cremation. The cause of death listed pneumonia as another complication of his lung cancer.
“Diretso cremation dahil nagka pneumonia, ayun umiiyak ang anak sa sama ng loob, nagkwento kasi ‘yung father niya nahirapan sa cancer, hindi nabigyan ng magandang burol at interment, umiiyak sila. Yung lungkot nila me kasamang galit kasi may lawn lot sila dito sa Eternal, hindi nila nagamit sa tatay niya, ‘yun ang dapat proper send-off.”
[His body was sent directly for cremation because he had pneumonia. The daughter was crying, saying her father had a hard time with his cancer, and yet they couldn’t give him a proper wake and interment. Her sadness came with anger, because they had a lawn lot here at Eternal, but couldn’t use it. They thought it was the proper sendoff].
Hearing those stories about their wrenching, sudden separation from loved ones breaks her heart, but hearing Marinelle’s story will also break one’s heart.
Tasked to ensure a proper send-off for the departed, she herself is still hurting from the sudden separation from her daughter. Her first move was to send Kyrille, 9, to her mother in Bataan before the Luzon lockdown started. “’Yung daughter ko is with my mother, kasama ang aking tito’t tita, mga lolo’t lola. Napakahirap po malayo mag two months na po this May 15. Hindi po ako sanay. Nasanay po ako na lagi kami magkasama. Sobrang hirap ‘yung mag-isa. Lalo na kapag me nararamdaman ka. Lalo na may krisis tayong kinahaharap ngayon.”
[My daughter is with my mother, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents. It’s so hard to be separated from her, it’s almost two months now. I’m not used to it; I’m so used to always having her with me. It’s so hard to be alone, especially on days when you feel bad. Especially as we have a crisis now].
Marinelle admits being paranoid at times about her health. “Ngayon po konting ubo lang, parang hindi ka na kampante sa sarili mo na para bang feeling mo infected ka na ng Covid-19. So ako lang po mag-isa, pero kinakaya ko po, for my family and for the company.”
[Now, with just a minor cough, you become uneasy, you wonder if you’re infected with Covid. I’m all alone, but I try to ride it out, for my family and for the company].
When this is over, she will fetch her child in Bataan. “Grade 5 na po ang anak ko, na mi-miss na niya yung hinahatid ko siya at sinusundo sa iskul kung kinakailangan [My daughter is now in Grade 5, and she misses my bringing her to school]. ”
“Nami-miss na niya ako at sana matapos na yun virus, gusto na niya umuwi gusto niya ako katabi matulog. Nasa Saudi ang tatay niya, marami ring kaso ng Covid-19 doon pero dahil sa mabilis na intervention, e konti ang namamatay. Kaya iba pa rin yung ako ang mag po-protect sa anak ko. Sabi ko mag pray at magsisimba kami, dasal ang aming sandata.”
[She misses me, and I hope this virus ends soon. My daughter wants to come home and sleep beside me. Her father is in Saudi where there are also Covid-19 cases, but because of quick intervention, there are few deaths. It’s different if I’m the one protecting my child. I told her we will pray and go to church; prayer is our weapon].
When Marinelle reunites with her daughter, they will go to church in Our Lady of Grace in Grace Park Caloocan where they stay. And she willl cook chicken nuggets, Kyrille’s favorite.
Hanap-buhay ay Hanap-patay
Like Marinelle, the pandemic has also been hard for Domingo Bon, crematory machine operator. For one, the number of cremations has nearly doubled.
He points to two burners, which, when switched on, will turn a cadaver to ash in four hours.
He shares what he sees when a body is being cremated: “Nauuna pong masunog yung ulo hanggang dibdib, tapos po mamumuti, mangingitim, mababanat, tumutupi at parang sunog na troso nangingitim [It’s the head that gets burned first until the chest. These at first turn white, then dark, then get stretched, then fold in, before becoming like a burned log].”
“I always pity them but it’s my job and I set aside my fear momentarily. Before, cremations were not so many, but now, we have them twice a day. The cremations are rising because this is government’s way of disposing of bodies infected with Covid-19.”
Bon and his companions, in protective coveralls, carefully put the cadaver bags inside the machine. They then close it, let it burn, let it cool for four hours, and put the ashes collected inside the urn.
The funeral parlor staff, in proper PPEs as well, receive the urn and deliver it to the relatives. No words are exchanged. Often, just a sad, silent look — like his first time burning a dead body — is all the sendoff they can give the departed.
Bon and his assistant quickly and thoroughly disinfect themselves and their work area as soon as the funeral service staff leaves with the urn.
“Talagang naliligo na po kami sa Lysol, nag spray na po kami ng disinfectant [It’s like we take a bath with Lysol; we spray with disinfectant].”
Domingo always goes home to his parents, even during the pandemic. But he makes sure that before he goes home, he has already cleaned up and disinfected himself. He eats and stays in his room, distancing himself from his parents who are both senior citizens. “Hanap-patay po ang aking hanap-buhay pero hindi ko po ipapahamak ang aking mga magulang [My job is to look after the dead, but I will never endanger my parents].”
This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on May 14, 2020 as part of their Backliners Series.