As I See It

Our bursting public cemeteries

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TOMORROW BEING All Saints’ Day, it is timely to discuss a frequent complaint of citizens: the loss of the graves of their loved ones when they go to the cemeteries as the day of the dead approaches. Spades, bolos and paint, or whitewash, in hand, they go to the site of the tombs of their relatives to clean and paint them and find, to their surprise, somebody else’s tomb there. They look around the vicinity, thinking that maybe they have come to the wrong place. But no, it is the same site—the adjoining tombs are the same, only the tombs of their loved ones have new occupants as the names on the gravestones proclaim. What happened?

The reason, most likely, is that they forgot to pay the yearly rent for the site to the local government which quickly and happily removed the bones of their loved ones so that the graves could be used for new occupants.

But shouldn’t the LGU first remind the living relatives that they have not paid rent for the gravesite for sometime and that if they don’t pay immediately, the remains of their relatives would be removed so that the gravesite can be used for somebody else?

Yes, that should have been the case, but LGUs don’t want to update them on the rentals because then they would have no excuse to replace the old grave with a new one. They are only too glad to dig out old tombs for new occupants, with the flimsiest excuse.

In fact, they prefer that more people fail to pay the rent for the graves of their relatives. Why? Because all our public cemeteries are hopelessly overcrowded. Every day, people are dying but the areas of the cemeteries remain the same, they do not expand. There is simply “no more room at the inn” for newcomers, and so LGUs do the next best thing: remove the old non-paying graves to make space for new ones.

Despite the growing popularity of memorial parks, cremation and columbariums, the masses prefer to bury their loved ones in public cemeteries because memorial parks and columbariums are expensive and only the well-to-do can afford them, whereas public cemeteries are free except for the annual rent. In fact, the masses cannot afford the cost of cremation.

Because of this, public cemeteries have reached their saturation points and can accommodate no more. Still, people keep dying, so where do we put them?

This is a problem that is getting worse every day, but which both the national and local governments have not bothered to solve. They would rather bury the problem like the dead, and forget about it. But they cannot forget because every day more people go to the city or municipal hall to complain about their missing graves. What happened? Where are the bones of their loved ones?

Usually, LGUs put the bones from each grave in a bag with the name of the deceased on it so that when relatives come to claim them, they would be able to return the remains to their claimants. But because of the sheer volume of unclaimed bones, they are dumped together in one place, their identities gone. So when the relatives come to claim them, the people in charge of the cemeteries merely pick up a bag and say that is the one. Most of the time, the bones belong to a stranger, but there is almost no way to determine that in most Philippine places. We have to take the word of the cemetery people, take it or leave it.

So the claimants leave with their bag of bones, happy that they have found the remains of their loved ones so that they can be buried in another, more secure gravesite. Alas, they have been fooled.

And that does not solve the problem of overcrowding in public cemeteries. Some LGUs have tried to solve it by putting up condominium-type of tombs, one on top of another, along the perimeter walls of public cemeteries. But even that is not enough. People are dying in greater numbers than new condos can be built for them. Along with the bursting population of the living, the population of the dead is also bursting. So what to do?

One way is cremation. A dead person’s ashes can be accommodated in one small urn, which can then be deposited in less than a square foot of space in a columbarium. Or the urn can be kept in the family altar. Some families prefer to spread the ashes at sea or by air. Others prefer to spread them around the roots and trunk of a favorite tree. So that the loved one will forever be a part of the tree, they say, and keep watch over them. Or spread on the lawn and fertilize it, so that when they walk barefoot on the grass, they would be touching the remains of their loved ones.

Still that does not solve the problem. Most of the masses have no lawns to spread the ashes on, or a favorite tree to fertilize. As said earlier, they cannot even afford the cost of cremation. The correct solution is to expand our public cemeteries or create new ones to accommodate all those people leaving this crowded world. Paradoxically, while they decrease the population of the living, they also increase the population of the dead.

Expanding public cemeteries or creating new ones is better said than done, however. Public land is decreasing rapidly, sold by the greedy government, national and local, to equally greedy land developers. Even land that should be set aside for parks are being sold in the greedy race to raise more money.

The souls of the dead should haunt our public officials so that they would pay attention to them more than they do to their own private pockets.

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