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Inquirer Northern Luzon
The casket capital of Central Luzon

By Tonette Orejas
Northern Luzon Bureau
First Posted 00:22:00 10/29/2008

Filed Under: Regional authorities

SANTO TOMAS, Pampanga ? In the books of the Department of Trade and Industry, Santo Tomas, the smallest and youngest town in Pampanga, still holds the title ?casket capital of Central Luzon.?

The town deserves the title. It is home to 300 family-owned ventures that each churn out a minimum of 80 caskets monthly or a total production of 24,000 a month.

That production rate is 10,000 short of its 33,267 population, estimates by Mayor Lito Naguit and industry leaders here showed.

More than the vibrant figures, the medium-sized firms have come full circle. They have also ventured into the funeral service business.

The St. Louie Casket Makers and Funeral Services, Lapid?s Woodcraft and Funeral Services, and Triple K Metal Craft, Funeral Services and Memorial Chapels belong to this league.

Serving the dead

St. Louie diversified in 1990, says its owner, former Santo Tomas Mayor Lucas Arceo. It branched into funeral services 20 years after his parents, Florencio and Egmidia, established the Paralaya Woodcraft in 1970 using a P500 start-up capital, Arceo says.
?It was natural to go into the funeral service business since we were already in the coffin-making business,? he says. ?We served the dead twice then.?

The company maintains three branches in Pampanga and one, called St. Mark, in Sampaloc, Manila.

Naguit?s parents-in-law, Bonifacio and Concha Lapid, tried the new field in 1994. Its lone branch is in Barangay Lamao in Limay, Bataan.

?We are already in the business of casket-making so we decided to venture into funeral service,? says Concha, 59.

Stiff competition

Triple K?s Editha Castro operates a more diversified venture. Aside from maintaining three chapels, her company is among the few that make metal coffins. She is known here as the only exporter of coffins to Australia, sending 150 pieces yearly to a businessman there.

Castro, 43, also sells metal sheets to other Santo Tomas-based companies, and chandeliers, carpets and hearses to funeral homes.

?The competition is stiff so my husband and I went into the related business,? Castro says.

The secret to their company?s fast growth is that since 1995, she and husband Rafael handle every aspect of the business, especially the retail side. Wanting to roll out more capital, they built their dream house only in 2004.

Concha Lapid prefers to keep the family business small ? making 100 coffins a month and having only one funeral parlor ? because, she says, the income is enough to lead a comfortable life. Two of her sons now help in the business as artisans.

The P20,000 that the Lapids put in the business in 1989 from Bonifacio?s income as a house painter in Saudi Arabia had done them well. It had sent five children to college. They have built a retirement house in the same factory area.

?What else can we ask for?? says Concha.

Respect for the dead

The Arceos, Castros and Lapids say the business values that drew in the profits and commanded loyalty from their clients are ?sipag at tiyaga (hard work and patience).?

The second ?secret,? they say, is one that the dead deserve: Respect.

?Talagang lahat tayo diyan pupunta kaya dapat maganda ang pagkakagawa ng mga kabaong (All of us are destined to die so every casket must be done well),? says Castro.

Concha, a Catholic, does not turn away poor customers. When one comes, she sells the coffin at production cost and asks for the payment later.

?In this business, you don?t pray that more people die. That?s not a Christian thing to do,? says Bonifacio.

The enterprise does not scare him. ?I don?t fear the dead because they won?t hurt you anyway,? he says.

Not once, he adds, has he seen a ghost throughout the time they were in the business.

Harmless dead

Even workers like Julie Garcia, known here as a manyeda or someone who installs the soft fabric on the coffin?s cover and interiors, are used to the sight of caskets.

?I work alone even at night and I?m not afraid,? says Garcia, 41, a second-generation manyeda.

Castro does the makeup for the dead when the mortician is tied up with work. ?The dead are harmless. We honor them through good service,? she says.

For Florencio Arceo, the maestro de obra (head craftsman) in his time, making beautiful coffins is a way of honoring the dead. At 80, that is still the advice he imparts to young artisans.

That was what Aquilino Tayag, founder of House of Woodcraft that pioneered the coffin-making business in the town, handed down to him as a matter of rule.



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