When All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day roll around, it is common practice for some local gravediggers to earn their living by scrubbing and decorating tombs in preparation for the special occasion.
However, for some people, like Jonardo Sarol, whose income is insufficient to support their families, it has turned into a means of supplementing their income, especially given the persistence of COVID-19.
When the pandemic struck, Jonardo started to paint and clean tombs to increase his family’s income. He would take a break from fishing and go to the neighborhood cemetery to give his service during Undas.
Later, at the age of 50, he realized that he could make a living by assisting people whose loved ones had died.
“Season lang, tuwing Undas lang ito. Bago lang din ako—kasi nagpapalaot talaga ako. Minsan magkapera ka rin dito, minsan wala. Kung makakita P200, nakadepende rin sa bigay. Kung bigyan ka ng P50 hindi na rin masama,” he said.
Construction worker Emman Ragas, like Jonardo, would also take time off from his regular job to clean, dig, and scrub at the New City Cemetery.
He was aware that the pandemic was to blame for the decline in business, but this year he has already noticed an increase—albeit a slow one—in the number of people returning to the cemetery to pay their respects to the deceased.
Ragas, who is 22 years old, isn’t put off by the decline in his income that COVID-19 caused. He is sure that he will keep digging graves until he retires.
“Nakasanayan na rin, halo-halo na ang ginagawa ko hindi lang linis, pati mag-gold ng lapida. Sakto lang din ang kinikita pero may araw din na wala. Malaking tulong din ito, may maipang-gastos, pangkain na rin sa bahay,” he said.
Prof. Michael Angelo Doblado, head of the studies center at Palawan State University (PSU), said that giving services for the dead has been done since the Spanish colonization.
The gravediggers, or “sepultureros”, were hired and paid by the church or parish where the cemetery is located.
“Panahon ng Kastila ‘yan kasi ang unang-una na mga sementeryo sa Pilipinas ay, actually, mga sementeryo ng simbahan. At ang sementeryo ay katabi ng simbahan, napakahalaga na katabi ng simbahan dahil malapit sa langit, lahat ng seremonya ay ginagawa sa simbahan, pagpapalapit ng sarili mo sa langit,” he said.
“Kaya ang sepulturero, nagtatrabaho siya at ang nagbabayad sa kaniya ay simbahan o parokya. Kadalasan ay nasa tabi siya o nasa likod siya ng simbahang Katoliko,” he added.
Cemetery work is not just for adults, says 14-year-old Pinyong, who needs money as “baon” when classes resume after the holiday break.
For other young people who, like him, want to help their families out financially by working and saving their own “baon,” this is a great opportunity.
He and his friend can earn up to P1,000 by cleaning and painting all day. But it only happens on the weekends or during Undas.
“Ang kinikita namin napupunta sa baon, sa bahay, bigas, pambayad sa kuryente. Gagawin ko pa ito kung kailangan pa, malaki rin kasi kita rito lalo na kapag wala kaming pasok,” he said.