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Casket capital

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NO ‘ATAOL’ Festival this year.

So reported the Manila Standard last week citing “lack of materials, time and funds for the October 31 event” in Sto. Tomas, Pampanga.

So? Who would want to come to a casket festival? I distinctly recall local media reported of a “first” caskets festival being held last year, which, in fact, was a second one. The first, called Kabaong Festival, being in 2012, initiated by then Mayor Lito Naguit “to attract tourists and open up business opportunities.”

Alas, like the product it promoted, the festival was buried after a less-than-a-threeday wake. But I have to give it to the mayor. Though himself engaged in the other Sto. Tomas industry of pottery-making – and later to food, putting up the now-everywhere Funnside Ningnangan franchises – Naguit aimed to replace the town in the national consciousness when it comes to caskets.

As indeed, for the longest time, Sto. Tomas was the undisputed “casket capital of the Philippines.

Born and raised in the somnolent town, I claim not so much of expert knowledge as an observant reading of the town’s casket narrative.

Casket-making was the sunrise industry in Sto. Tomas in the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, when the principal means of livelihood, farming, became less and less profitable with the intrusion of saline waters in the rivers that adversely affected rice production.

The rivers were the principal sources of irrigation then. If memory serves right, the pioneer mangabaong (coffin-makers) were a Kojak look-alike surnamed Tayag in Moras de la Paz, then only a sitio of Barangay San Matias; and Apung Esu Canlas, whose factory was based in Balut, Sapa also a San Matias sitio then.

Both sitios have since been made barangays that brought to seven the total number of my town’s basic political units. See how tiny Sto. Tomas is?

Casket-manufacturing went big-time with the establishment of the House of Woodcraft (HOW) in Barangay San Vicente, taking the industry from the backyard to the production line.

HOW also broke the sole proprietorship tradition of the business, going corporate with the surnames Kabigting, Calaquian, Tayag, Manese, among others, as shareholders.

As in the cases of the sari-sari store and hot pandesal – of profitable ventures getting over-replication – casket-manufacturing mushroomed all over town with company names ranging from Briones to Pineda to PPP Santos, and later Arceo – all of whom entering the political ring but only with Pineda – Romulo, and Arceo – Lucas, managing to get elected as mayor.

Yeah, there was one election where three of the five mayoralty candidates were casket manufacturers. Sorry, no buy-one-take-one sale though was proffered to the voters.

The ‘70s saw Sto. Tomas as the casket center of the whole Philippines, its factories supplying the whole archipelago – from Appari to Jolo, and even exporting their produce to Asian countries and even the USA.

So used to coffins in all makes – high-end narra with all the intricate dukit (carvings), mid-level apitong and tangile, low-low class “flattop” of plywood – and in various stages of production were the townsfolk and the children that the horror the kabaong of lore impacted completely vanished in Sto. Tomas.

Yes, it was not uncommon to see workers napping in unfinished caskets at lunch break, or floating coffins being paddled by young boys during floods.

Social status

As a matter of course, at funeral wakes in the town, the first thing that the makirame (condoler) takes note of is not the dearly departed but the coffin in which he/she lies. Which is a clear give-away of his/her social status, if not of his/ her value to the family left behind. Narra, wow! Flattop, eww! The ante further raised later with the entry of bronze and metal caskets.

In the ‘80s to the early ‘90s casket manufacturing nosedived. For a lot of reasons.

There was a glut in production. Then came the cut-throat competition resulting to sungaban presyu (underpricing). And ultimately the funeral parlors they supplied put up their own factories, with the help of the Sto. Tomas casket craftsmen themselves.

It was at this time when “stowing-away” among skilled workers, primarily carpenters and carvers, became a phenomenon in the town.

The funeral parlor owners or their agents from Northern and Southern Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao regularly called on the Sto. Tomas factories for their orders. This afforded the workers to know them and established some sort of connections.

So, when the “stowaway” workers suddenly materialized in their funerarias offering their skills and services – usually as industrial partners – to put up their own casket factories, the funeral parlor owners readily welcomed them: the savings not only in freight cost of caskets, but also in time and materials, as primary motive.

That – plus the later liberalization policies that opened the Philippine market to imported caskets – virtually dug the grave for the casket industry of Sto. Tomas.

Not even the industry’s flagship company House of Woodcraft could stand its ground, dissolving into the thoroughly different Asia Ceramics, reverting from corporate to single-family enterprise.

Today, casket-makers who have survived and even excelled – Lucas Arceo being the most prominent – have put up their own funeral parlors, serving as open, ready market to their production.

Though not quite back to its glory days of yore – of holding a virtual monopoly in the whole Philippines – the casket industry in Sto. Tomas thrives well enough to merit once more that now forgotten blurb: Sa aking bayan, hanap-patay ang pangunahing hanapbuhay (In my town, the dead provides our principal livelihood).

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