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Even cemeteries are feeling the heat

The most common method of disposing the dead through burial in the ground is making cemeteries like overly packed cans of sardines. Photo by Bing Gonzales

Over-population today is not anymore confined in the domains of the living. Even the communities of the dead are becoming heavily congested and are adding up to the problem wanting in solution from the leaders of hose still walking the earth.

It is no fiction to hear stories that most, if not all, of the country’s cemeteries, especially the public ones are so crowded with tombs and niches that hardly a space is left to wiggle for those who go there to bury their dead or pay homage to their departed. This is largely because in every municipality in the entire country public cemeteries are not expanded in areas. And there are no new cemetery sites added.

This, without doubt, is the reason of the very strong growth in the memorial park business these days. In fact large conglomerates that are into property development for the living, as well as those in the pawnshops, remittance and jewelries businesses are now venturing into putting up high-end havens for the dead. But private memorial cemeteries are expensive and seemingly affordable only to families belonging to the higher strata of Philippine society.

So, local governments and churches are pushed to the wall searching for ways to address the problem of the acute need for more space to bury or entomb the dead.

Bringing back an old practice

One old practice that can be a solution to the problem of “over population” of cemeteries is cremation of the dead, a system that has remained unacceptable to many Filipinos who are deeply religious and have a high sense of respect for their dead love ones. The method however, is already gaining acceptance. In fact certain local governments are encouraging its adoption. Today such method of disposing the dead is becoming more a necessity rather than an attempt to bring an old practice.

There is no doubt that local governments have realized that the most common method of disposing the dead through burial in the ground is making cemeteries like overly packed cans of sardines. Add to it the embolden desire of some homeless to have something they can call home, cemeteries nowadays are not even safe from the living. They who got no fear of ghosts and other hair-raising tales squat on vacant cemetery lots, on its perimeter fence, and even on top of graves of the dead. Hence, local government leaders see cremation as a long-term option to arrest the over-population of what is to be the final resting place of the people on earth.

But what really is cremation? When was this adopted and why has the means been widely practiced by some ancient and modern yet influential countries today? Is the method accepted by the Church?

According to the World Book Dictionary CREMATION is burning of a dead body to ashes. It has been practiced since time immemorial. But according to the World Book this practice of disposing the dead was not used in ancient China and Egypt. This was however, practiced in ancient Greece and Rome.

The World Book says that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that burning the body “purifies the soul and releases it from its earthly form.” The World Book also adds cremation remained “uncommon in Christian countries until the 1800s.” It says further that the early Christians believed in the eventual reuniting of the body and the soul. Thus they viewed cremation then as a form of disrespect.

Vatican-issued guidelines explained

On October 24, 2016, or roughly a little over a week before the commemoration of All Saints and All Souls Days of that year, Vatican released new guidelines governing cremation as a way of disposing the dead.

Fr. Francis Lucas, Executive Director of the Catholic Media Network (CMN) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in a television interview beamed nationwide days before the celebration of All Saints and All Souls Days that year, said that the Catholic Church already officially accepted cremation as a mode of disposing the dead only in 1964. However, the acceptance was also laced with restrictions.

In explaining the guidelines Fr. Lucas, said one of the salient provisions therein is for the immediate relatives of the dead to place the ashes inside an urn and bury the same in a tomb in the cemetery or a crypt under a structure previously authorized by the Church. The ashes could also be deposited inside special vaults in a columbary the use of which is for a specific period of time subject to renewal. These, according to Fr. Lucas, are hallowed grounds or locations that are blessed by the Church, therefore are places considered holy.

The CBCP official further explained in the interview that the Vatican-issued guidelines prohibit the keeping of the urn containing the ashes inside the houses of any or all relatives of the dead. Also disallowed, according to the CBCP official, is the scattering of the ashes in the sea or wind, or in any specific place willed by the dead. The Church also restricts the apportioning of the ashes to immediate family members as the ashes represent the whole body of the dead. Thus, according to Fr. Lucas, dividing it is like one family member taking the hands, another getting the head, still another, and so on and so forth sharing a piece of the human body.

However, the CMN executive director explained to the station’s viewers that the Vatican still allows certain exceptions. But there is a stringent process needed to be granted such leeway to dispose of the ashes.

Rekindled interest in cremation

But what could have triggered the people’s interest to adopt the cremation practice these days? As earlier mentioned, public cemeteries or common burial grounds are now heavily congested. And while there are newly developed memorial parks, acquiring a lot from these private cemeteries for single, double or multi-burial purposes is very expensive despite promotional offers brought about by competition. Add to it the high cost of burial services like provision of sealable concrete box for the coffin and the digging, the cost of burying the dead in such corporate-owned resting havens becomes all too exorbitant.

Another unmistakable reason is the concern on land use in urban areas. Governments have made it difficult both for the Church and the corporate groups to acquire properties intended to be used for purposes of burying the dead; and for believably good reasons, environment and health concerns among them. Hence, there is a reawakening of interest in cremation to dispose of the dead. That is why today’s modern memorial parks also provide facilities for such means of disposal. These facilities are called crematories.

As previously stated, cremation in the Philippines is not yet widely accepted. Many attribute this hesitance in the adoption of that particular method of disposal to the Filipinos’ value of very high respect for family members. And it is carried on until the time of their death and in the disposal of their bodies.

Now there are clear indications that the more schooled and the families of the elite appear to have overcome, or perhaps done away with such value. And it is from their ranks that cremation has become readily acceptable.

Davao’s “cremated” crematory project

In other countries however, cremation has been prevalent as a means of disposing the dead. According to the World Book, cremation accounts for the disposal of 50 percent of the dead in Australia. The United Kingdom about 70 percent, and about 15 percent of the dead in the United States are also cremated.

In Japan, an Asian country like the Philippines, cremation is widely practiced. Ninety five (95) percent of the dead in that country are cremated, according to the World Book.

The City of Manila has already set a trend by building a columbary for the dead of poor families whose relatives would prefer cremation than direct burial.

Some years back the local government of Davao City wanted to have its own crematorium. It was assumed that with the project a columbary was to be built as depository of the ashes of the city’s dead.

It was a worthy project that did not see the light of day. It was “cremated” by strong oppositions from some well-meaning sectors of Davao society.

So on All Saints and All Souls Day, that is on Friday, November 1, and Saturday, November 2, public cemeteries already full to the brim with tombs of the dead, will also be overwhelmed by the living who will come to visit and pay respect to their departed loved ones.

For the more affluent memorial parks however, the large spaces available would still be packed with more living individuals visiting their dead relatives. But the open grounds inside the walled havens of the dead will also be occupied fully with vehicles of the living whose owners are likely having the passion for recognition and the desire to be associated with the higher level of Philippine society – the rich and famous.

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