A Cemetery's Revival Signals 'Womb to Tomb' City Services

The coming wave of global urban growth will also produce a massive wave of urban death. This city in the Philippines has ideas for how to handle it.

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Roy Bien prays for his late wife at the Mandaluyong Garden of Life Park. The once crumbling cemetery is undergoing a dramatic transformation. (Anna Valmero/Citiscope)

MANDALUYONG CITY, Philippines — A mayor does not normally make his name by digging up bones of the dead. But Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos Jr., saw no other way.

For years, the garbage-strewn public cemetery in his city, part of Metro Manila, had become overstuffed with bodies. Families of the dead stacked new concrete apartment niches five-high atop the old ones. But it wasn’t enough to handle 1,000 new arrivals each year. Gravediggers would make room by pulling out bones and tossing them to the ground or shoving them into unmarked plastic sacks. Babies were buried under the pathways, marked only by small marble stones inscribed with the child’s name.

Abalos, now serving his sixth three-year term as mayor, set out to bring order to Mandaluyong’s way of handling the dead. He’s turned the city’s crumbling burial ground into a proud “one-stop shop” for memorial services. There’s a new chapel and crematorium, as well as nicely kept niches for remains and a columbarium for ashes.  Abalos also came up with several strategies considered innovative in the Philippines. He created a new economic model for running a public cemetery. And he figured out how to safely cremate large volumes of remains in the middle of a crowded city.

“The question haunting us was clear,” Abalos recalls. “You lived poor. You died poor. But even in death, there is no dignity. What can we do?”

Perhaps his biggest breakthrough was in making the case that people without much money deserved the same respect as everyone else, in death as much as in life. “From womb to tomb,” Abalos says. “That is how modern local governments should think when providing service to the community.”

Growth industry

By now, the challenges of rapid urbanization around the world are well known. Urban populations are expected to nearly double from 3.4 billion to 6.4 billion in 2050. That growth will put unprecedented strains on cities, particularly in the developing world, to house, feed and employ all those people.

What’s less discussed is that all those urban dwellers are also going to die. So as cities make plans to accommodate all those people in their lives, they also will need strategies for when those peoples’ lives are over.  

In the Philippines, where most people are Roman Catholic, cemeteries play an important role in culture. Families visit cemeteries each year on November 1 and 2  for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day — national holidays known as undas when Filipinos honor and pray for their dead. The tradition of honoring the dead long predates the Spanish colonial period. Carvings on the Manunggul jar, a 3,000-year old secondary burial jar on display at the National Museum of the Philippines, represent two souls traveling to the afterlife. The relic is pictured on the 1,000 peso banknote.

Abalos had his own painful loss to draw inspiration from. Ciara Marie, his 19-year old daughter, died in 2005 from an E.coli infection, 24 hours after returning home from teaching catechism to youth in a poor area north of Manila. This episode strengthened his resolve to provide a better public cemetery — one that is not congested, convenient to visit, attractive, and peaceful.

“We were lucky we can afford to have better conditions at a private cemetery,” he says. “But what about those who cannot? There still should be dignity in death.”

Boxed in

One afternoon several years ago, Abalos was observing the wall of his office, which is carpeted with squares. It reminded him of a drafting problem from his days studying architecture and engineering in a technical school: How many smaller squares can fit in a given area? The 2.5 hectare (6 acre) cemetery was boxed in by a residential neighborhood and had no room to expand out.

“To make space for more,” he told me recently while motioning to his office wall, “we need to build up and increase capacity by filling smaller quarters with higher numbers of remains — of course, while maintaining respect for the dead. That’s the first step to this innovation.”

It wasn’t easy to find advice on turning around a public cemetery — most cemeteries in the Philippines are privately managed. The mayor and his team came up with a 14-year master plan, which divides the cemetery development into phases. This was five years ago, so the renovation is still very much a work in progress.

An older part of the cemetery shows what conditions were like before the project. (Anna Valmero/ Citiscope)

During the first year of construction in 2008, crews dug up the remains of 5,000 people to make space for the columbarium, crematorium, a funeral parlor and chapel. Roads were widened and paved, and a pond garden created a green urban space for visitors. The cemetery was renamed “Garden of Life Park.” A huge gate out front was embellished with the image of a roaring tiger, the symbol of the city. Capital costs for the first three years were less than $1 million U.S.

Abalos also consulted with the priests of the San Felipe Neri Church in Mandaluyong. The Catholic church is a powerful force in the Philippines. For a project with such a strong religious component to it, he wanted to make sure he had the clergy on board. The use of cremation was a big part of the plan, and rather unusual in the Philippines, and he specifically wanted their word that this was fine with them. It was.

A range of services

Abalos also needed a new business plan. Previously, families essentially bought apartment niches for their deceased, and the costs of operating the cemetery were highly subsidized from city coffers. Now, the cemetery runs on more of a rental model and there are more options for families to consider.

In the new cemetery, families who want remains kept in a traditional apartment niche can rent a space for five years. This costs a one-time payment of 5,000 pesos (about $114 U.S.) with steep discounts available for the indigent. When the lease term is up, families are notified by letter that the the remains are to be exhumed and can either be transferred to another cemetery or cremated. (Unclaimed bones are placed in a newly refurbished bone crypt, in bags with identifying tags that include the full name of the deceased as well as dates of birth and death.) The vacated niche is then restored and renovated for the next occupant.

A second option is to cremate the body right away, and have the ashes stored in the columbarium. The large structure has 3,000 tiny niches to hold urns — a space costs 2,000 pesos per year (about $45 U.S.).

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Finally, a family can cremate the body and take the ashes home. That’s the cheapest option overall. It’s also the easiest for the city to manage for the long-term; prices were set very low to encourage people to choose this option. Long-term residents pay as little as 4,000 pesos ($90 U.S.), or half that for the very poor — some pay nothing. Non-residents pay as much as 12,000 pesos ($274 U.S.) but even that is a deal compared with private crematoriums that charge as much as 60,000 pesos ($1,400 U.S.).

Actually, the crematorium is a key part of the business model. Crematorium services provided to non-residents, other local governments and commercial memorial services subsidize the cemetery’s operations. This allows the cemetery to turn a modest annual profit of about 2 million pesos ($45,000 U.S.), which are invested locally in health and education.

When the project began, surrounding communities were concerned about exhaust gas coming from the crematorium. Abalos found a Korean manufacturer who worked with city engineers to construct stainless steel pipes where smoke from the cremation chamber can be cleaned before the exhaust is released. The scrubbing technology is similar to those used in big maritime ships.

The overall project won the 2012 Galing Pook Award for best practices in Philippine local governance and has become a national template for managing public cemeteries.

Sunday stroll

While there was some controversy over the project in the beginning, it has since faded. On a recent Mother’s Day visit to the Garden of Life Park, the cemetery was especially crowded with people paying their respects. Everyone I spoke with seemed to appreciate the tranquility of the setting and the ease of accessing the city’s various memorial services.

Dionisia Prado wasn’t there for her mother, but rather a friend who had died that morning. Prado, 58, was seeking financial assistance for cremation. “Five to ten years ago, I would not have chosen to have my friend cremated because it was expensive,” says Prado. “After she saw the practicality of it a few years back, she told me she made a choice to be buried this way.”

Later in the day as the sun was going down, Mario Mercado was visiting his mother Anita in the section of the park where the new apartment niches are. Anita died in March. A recent photo of her smiling was embossed on her tombstone. Mercado snapped a photo of the photo, together with a long-stemmed white rose and yellow carnation he had brought with him.

Mario Mercado visits the tomb of his mother Anita two or three times a week. He says the cemetery’s prices are affordable for middle-income earners like him. (Anna Valmero/ Citiscope)

Mercado lives in a neighborhood near the cemetery and remembers how run-down it had become. Now, he says he feels comfortable coming here sometimes two or three times a week. He calls himself a “mama’s boy” — he always wants to give fresh flowers to his mother.

Mercado is not sure yet what he’ll do with his mother’s remains when the five-year lease is up. He’s considering having the remains cremated and stored in one of the chambers of the columbarium. He adds that 5,000 pesos for a five-year lease was the most affordable interment option his family could find, as other city cemeteries would charge three to four times more and require cash payment upfront.

From afar, Mercado saw two boys riding their bicycles inside the park and laughing, carefree. The trees swayed gently in a calm breeze as the moon peaked above the clouds. “Happy Mother’s Day,” Mercado said to Anita. “I love you, Ma.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Anna Valmero is a freelance journalist covering environment and climate change stories in the Philippines and Asia. Her work has appeared in Climate Wire, Thomson Reuters, SciDev.Net and Yahoo! News, among others.