Coffin capital happy on ‘undas’
SANTO TOMAS, Pampanga—Ahead of All Souls’ Day, “undas” or “daun” to Kampampangan, the general mood among craftsmen and entrepreneurs in this town, the coffin capital of Central Luzon, is one of joy and gratitude.
They are celebrating because, by their leaders’ reckoning, they have managed to honor the dead by making quality coffins.
They are in high spirits because, in August, they survived the floods that submerged Barangay San Vicente, where most coffin factories are located, Mayor Joselito Naguit says.
“It’s the worst flood we experienced after the Cabalantian tragedy,” Ruby Zapata, owner of RNZ Metal Caskets, says, referring to the Oct. 1, 1995, event when lahar washed down by rains from the slopes of Mt. Pinatubo buried Barangay Cabalantian in nearby Bacolor town and spilled to Sto. Tomas.
After the almost monthlong floods caused by the southwest monsoon surge in August, Zapata is back on her feet, delivering her stocks to Tagaytay City starting last week.
On Aug. 7, water from the Gugu Creek flowing through the FVR Megadike turned toward Barangay Talba in Bacolor and flowed to the nearby village of Mesalipit. The water was impounded in the 19-km San Fernando-Sto. Tomas-Minalin tail dike.
By 8 a.m., hardly had Zapata opened shop than the floodwaters rose and by noon had breached two segments of the dike facing the City of San Fernando, the capital of Pampanga.
“Because Sto. Tomas is lower, the water headed toward our town,” Naguit says.
The floodwaters rose 30 centimeters to
2 meters, drowning two residents. Residents climbed up the roofs, fled to taller houses and buildings, left town, or took bancas and makeshift rafts to survive.
Though trained by old craftsmen like Florencio Arceo, 84, to be unafraid of the dead, the courage of residents engaged in the coffin industry was shaken by the floods.
“All my coffins, around 50 of them, floated on water that rose very fast, up to my chest. I had to repair many and throw away some,” Zapata says.
That scene was repeated twice over in 74 more factories, with workers rushing to save the coffins by putting them on elevated racks or storing them in houses with upper floors.
The damage, as shown by the local government’s estimates, reached about P5 million. Tools, stuffing materials, paint, compressors and hearse and truck engines were among the important items destroyed by floods.
The amount did not include lost opportunities from undelivered coffins that could not be transported because the town’s roads were submerged.
Councilor Mark Louie Arceo says between 150 and 200 backyard producers who support the factories bore the brunt of the floods because not many of them lived in houses with higher floors where they could move the coffins.
The backyard producers are wholesalers and each churns out a minimum of 80 wooden coffins monthly.
As the floods lingered, the shops stopped production. Zapata suspended work for two weeks, but she paid her workers in advance and gave them food.
Preparing for next time
Though the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the provincial and municipal governments worked to divert the water away from Sto. Tomas, Zapata began to make her factory flood-free for the rest of the rainy season.
She ordered 12 trucks of sand, at P6,400 each, to raise the ground. “I took a photograph of my floating coffins. I told myself I should make the factory ready for whatever happens next time,” says Zapata, 47, who is in her eighth year in the business.
Because she could not yet afford to build a second floor in her factory, she built elevated iron racks for storage. Now she relies on cash collections from old deliveries to sustain the business until the end of the year.
The floods disrupted the business of even big players, like St. Peter Life Plan Inc. (SPLPI), Arceo, St. Thomas and Germel. But no one is thinking of moving out of Sto. Tomas.
“We have no plan of relocating because we like the skilled labor here. They’re fast and skillful. They have craftsmanship,” says Zaldy Carcueva, SPLPI manager here, in English and Filipino.
SPLPI, a preneed firm, runs two factories here and in nearby Minalin town. The 42-year-old company is not a homegrown industry but opened in town in 2005 to tap the town’s skilled labor.
Carcueva says SPLPI stopped manufacturing from Aug. 7 to 15, unable to make 70 metal coffins and 420 wooden coffins that week. Branches in the cities of Cebu, Ormoc and Davao filled the demand.
To help its 85 workers cope with the disaster, SPLPI paid them despite the work suspension. The company also gave the workers relief packages and P5,000 in cash as aid.
It helped that the second floor of the company’s building was 3 meters high, a lesson learned from the Cabalantian tragedy.
Carcueva is monitoring the progress of the dike work. If the repairs fail, SPLPI will have to spend P100,000 on sand alone to fill and raise the ground level at its factory.
“One just needs to listen to the sound of tools at work to say that our people are resilient,” Naguit says.
The acknowledged pioneer in the industry here is Aquilino Tayag, founder of House of Woodcraft, which thrived even after the eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991.
On the heels of Tropical Storm “Sendong” in December 2011, craftsmen here worked six to eight hours a day to rush 500 coffins for people who were killed in the flash floods that hit Cagayan de Oro City.
Business for the industry is not all local. Some manufacturers, like Editha Castro’s Triple K, have managed to export metal coffins.
On the 61st founding anniversary of Sto. Tomas on Oct. 12, the local government sponsored a thanksgiving Mass, with the theme “We can rise above disasters by helping each other and trusting God.”
On Oct. 15, Naguit and hundreds of residents returned to the dike to help plug the damaged sections with sandbags.
“A good outcome of the disaster is that it strengthened the unity of the victims themselves,” Naguit says.
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