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Sunday, December 17, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES
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   popular economics
Date posted: Monday, May 29, 2017 | Manila, Philippines

Death care adapts to call of the times

FROM HOTEL-LIKE amenities to high-rise columbaria and online viewing of the dead -- the funeral industry has gone through some changes in the last several years.

Blame it on a host of factors, not least of which is the diaspora of working-age Filipinos to countries offering higher-paying jobs. Working for a living abroad has opened Filipinos to non-traditional ways of honoring their dead. For starters, there’s the popularity of cremation.

“In 1992 when we started... cremation... on the first year, we were doing about 12% [of] our total,” said Rafael S. Jose, president of Arlington Memorial Chapels, Inc. “Today we’re already at 50%.”

The Sanctuarium reports the same trend, according to its vice-president for operations, Eugene C. Cheng: “When we started in 2006, rate of cremation as final disposition was 21%. Right now it’s around 68%.”

Manila Memorial Park Cemetery, Inc. marketing services manager Ramon Antonio S. Yadao said the market for memorial lots has plateaued in Metro Manila.

Dati captured namin, burial lang, we call it traditional because back then we were still closed Catholic. But as the country was slowly getting westernized, it’s opened up to other ideas, we were exposed to other forms -- cremation, etc.,” he said.

“In Metro Manila, the demand for memorial park is still there but is gradually being eaten away by other forms, especially cremation,” Mr. Yadao said, adding that columbarium sales now comprise 15%-20% of the total.

The allure of cremation also stems from the “prohibitive” price of a memorial lot, according to Sanctuarium’s Mr. Cheng.

The price of Sanctuarium’s columbarium vaults -- which can accommodate up to two urns -- starts at P90,000. Vaults that can store up to four urns cost from P115,000 upward.

In contrast, the price of a memorial lot in Sucat, Parañaque, that can contain up to two bodies or six urns ranges from P250,000 to P300,000, according to Manila Memorial’s Mr. Yadao.

To a certain extent, memorial park operators are casualties of the property boom. As a consumer-led economic expansion took hold, demand rose for shopping malls and starter-homes (mostly, condominiums), causing real estate prices to shoot up.

The Sanctuarium’s 12-storey building is testament to this property boom. The columbarium was established in 2006, or when property prices in Metro Manila had bottomed out, as seen from land values in the country’s two foremost central business districts (Makati and Ortigas) at the time.

“In the provinces, it’s a different story, traditional pa, conservative pa ang mga tao. So we’re thrusting into the provinces,” Manila Memorial’s Mr. Yadao said.

But he admitted that in a few years, cremation would become acceptable outside Metro Manila, with the establishment of crematoriums in places such as Baguio, Cebu, Davao and Cagayan de Oro.

Manila Memorial has two parks in Metro Manila (Parañaque and Novaliches), and similar facilities in Cavite, Bulacan, Cebu and Davao.

Nakita na namin iyan [We’ve seen cremation] to continue to grow because the trend follows the US trend and we saw this as far back as 10 years ago because it was predicted there already,” said Arlington’s Mr. Jose. “We’re just mirroring what had happened to them.”

Besides being cheaper than a memorial lot, Sanctuarium’s Mr. Cheng said cremation “lessens the trauma of looking at the tomb.”

Arlington’s Mr. Jose said the technology likewise has improved. When cremation was introduced in the country, it took four to five hours for the body to be cremated -- two hours to burn, an hour to cool and another hour to process. However, machines imported from China can finish the job in only an hour.

“It’s called the single and double hearth, meaning your heat is coming from both sides so it dries up the body faster,” Mr. Jose said.

According to Antonio T. Puyat, Jr., president of Loyola Memorial Chapels and Crematorium, Inc., recent innovations are even friendlier to the environment. Alkaline hydrolysis, also called “green” or “water” cremation, supposedly reduces the carbon footprint by 75% .

“Right now, it’s just traditional and cremation [in the Philippines]. The newer trends like freezing, or alkaline hydrolysis is not yet being done in the Philippines but in the US, when we attend conventions, we have seen these machines,” Mr. Puyat said.

This underscores another value proposition that some in the funeral industry are emphasizing: making the experience of losing a loved one more convenient, if not less painful.

As such, funeral companies nowadays are providing more services to make the wake and burial more convenient to clients, even offering hotel-like amenities to the grieving family.

“We see this a lot in the United States, but now it has become a trend here,” said Arlington’s Mr. Jose. “They call them ‘combo’ funeral homes because they do everything in one place.”

“Combo” funeral homes are like one-stop shops where everything is in one place -- memorial parks, funeral homes, crematories, columbariums, and an event center.

Kung titignan mo yung mga pangmasa, ganun pa rin pero let’s say the top 25-30%, nagbago na (If you look at the low-end of the market, it’s still the same, but for the top 25% to 30%, things have changed),” said Sanctuarium’s Mr. Cheng.

Syempre may competition iyan, naglalaban ’yan ng mga amenities (Of course, competition has come in, we’re competing on amenities), how you orchestrate the whole funeral activity,” he said.

Sanctuarium, for example, offers complete memorial services under one roof. The 12-storey building has a mortuary, crematorium, several floors of columbarium, Buddhist temple, and 28 vigil chapels with family room.

Some funeral companies have gone the extra mile, partnering with other service establishments to meet the client’s needs.

“We have Ministop in front. It’s for the convenience of [clients] because we find it on our area, walang masyadong malapit sa amin (there’s no nearby convenience store),” said Loyola’s Mr. Puyat. “You might have to cross the street. It might be inconvenient for you so we allowed Ministop to come in. We also have Mister Donut and Master Siomai.”

Sanctuarium also has a café, a flower shop and a convenience store inside their building, and pretty soon a spa, which according to Mr. Cheng, will help the grieving family and friends of the deceased to relax.

Convenience includes tapping the Internet technology and social media, which have made funeral arrangements easier both for the client and the funeral company.

“Before, we would expect families to walk in and inquire,” said Arlington’s Mr. Jose. “Nowadays, we either get a text message or we get a Facebook inquiry, a Web site inquiry, before they come in. In fact, sometimes we have to be the ones to go to them because it’s more convenient that way.”

Technology has helped distant friends and family of the deceased take part in the burial -- a welcome service for overseas Filipino workers, some of whom can’t go home on short notice.

“The recent emergence of technology-driven innovations such as online viewing, obituaries on social media, and the production habilin videos, show that even an industry such as death care has embraced the conveniences brought about by the era of social media,” said Roy Joseph S. Fernandez, chief information officer at Golden Haven Memorial Park, Inc.

One such Internet-based service is the online obituary, wherein the surviving kin and friends can comment or leave a message for the deceased. Arlington, for example, invested in a system developed in the US.

“What happens is during the wake you have a screen, like an iPad, where you can record your memories about the deceased. You tell your stories to the screen and it gives you two minutes; everything is put back into our system. We edit it, we send it to the company abroad and then they come up with the full video and it’s just e-mailed back to the family so that they could share it to the rest,” Mr. Jose said.

“The sharing of other people, instead of coming in saying, ‘Alam mo ang daddy mo ganito sa’kin, sabi namin (You know your daddy was kind to me, so we tell them) why don’t you record that. So we have that system now.”

Then there’s live webcasting -- something difficult to do in the past because of the poor Internet connectivity.

“What we would [do back] then, because of the [poor] Internet connectivity, we would record and then we would post. But the live webcast has to be done with higher bandwidth which we only got last year so we’re now able to webcast live. Everybody can do it. You don’t need to purchase an online burol thing because your phone can actually be on and recording the entire service the whole time,” Mr. Jose said.

Innovation for the funeral industry, however, doesn’t stop with the Internet, as some companies have raised the art of giving tributes to a more meaningful level, thus helping the surviving kin and friends heal.

“There has to be a story, there has to be a narrative around what you’re doing,” said Mr. Jose, citing usual ceremonies like releasing butterflies or balloons, or dropping petals.

Arlington, for example, offers foreign-trained lay celebrants, who substitute for the clergy when unavailable.

“More often than not, what happens is when you bring a body to the memorial park, hindi na makasama yung pari, nagmisa sa simbahan hindi na kasama, (the priest, after celebrating mass, can no longer join the entourage all the way to the cemetery), [so] there’s no program,” Mr. Jose said. “It’s the celebrant’s job to actually do it. Even in our cremation services, we have a short tribute that we created for all families. There’s a flower offering, there’s a last memory writing, there’s now a candle ceremony.”

The final memory writing refers to the surviving kin writing their final messages or memories on the coffin before it is cremated.

Of course, closure for the surviving kin is helped along by providing memorabilia, giving them a feeling that the deceased is still with them, if not in spirit, then at least through some piece of remembrance.

Examples of customized keepsakes include personalized candle with the picture of the deceased; “thumbies,” which is a personalized jewelry created from the fingerprint of a loved one; and a cross made from the corner of the casket used during the wake.

On the subject of caskets, Mr. Jose said 3-D printing is the wave abroad: “The corners of the caskets can actually be the face of the person. It’s not here yet but we can order it abroad. I’ve seen urns in the shape of boats and model cars because of the advent of the 3-D printer. I was in a convention last October and they actually showed me a stadium, a baseball stadium, which was an urn because the guy was a baseball player. So he had the stadium recreated from a picture and made into a 3-D.”

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