COVID-19 also hard on those earning a living among the dead
DAGUPAN CITY, Pangasinan, Philippines — Days before All Saints’ Day, James Daquiwag would usually wait for his regular patrons at the cemetery gate.
The 33-year-old Daquiwag, who always looked forward to “Undas,” would be ready with cans of white, black and gold paint.
But in the year of the coronavirus pandemic, he has been limited to working as a parking attendant, since visits to the gravesites have been restricted.
Locals like him who rely on a seasonal source of income as tomb or headstone painters, cemetery cleaners and flower or candle vendors have been forced to find other ways to earn a living among the dead.
“The week before [All Saints’ Day], the cemeteries would have already been cleaned and the tombs repainted white,” said Arnold Fernandez, a village watchman who also whitewashed tombs on the side, recalling how brisk business was before the health crisis.
‘Spider men, lettering boys’
The painters charged P150 to P300 per tomb. “Spider men”—so-called because they are willing to climb multilevel “apartment-type” tombs—were paid P30 to P100 for lighting candles and putting flowers on elevated, hard-to-reach niches.
Cleaners, meanwhile, asked for P200 to P400, depending on the scrubbing job required; they were also paid for removing trash and pulling weeds.
“This is my only chance to earn good money and provide decent food to my family. But because of the government order [to close cemeteries], plus these daily rains, it’s all gone,” said headstone “lettering boy” JayR Bajal, 33.
For the first time in the Filipino observance of Undas, cemeteries nationwide were declared off-limits from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4 to avoid gathering big crowds that could potentially turn into superspreaders of the coronavirus. Families who planned to honor their dead were encouraged instead to offer prayers and light candles at home.
Bajal, who works at a cemetery in Tayabas City, Quezon province, said he understood the seriousness of the pandemic. “It’s better to sleep hungry than be infected,” he said with a chuckle.
Randel Manalo, 32, also a lettering boy in a cemetery just outside Lucena City in Quezon, said he could only hope that the restrictions would be relaxed soon so he could start earning again.
Tomb cleaner Mario Maceda, 50, had to find other ways to get by after missing his “clients” this year.
“I regularly clean the tombs of their loved ones the whole year round,” he said, giving an idea of his forgone income.
—Reports from Yolanda Sotelo and Delfin Mallari Jr.