[New School] Apartment tombs to mansion graves: Reflections on inequality in death

Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa

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[New School] Apartment tombs to mansion graves: Reflections on inequality in death

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'Economic disparity chiefly determines the orientation of a dead person’s resting place: vertical for the poor, horizontal for the rich'

One November afternoon, while Nanay and my family members were busy pulling out undergrowth around our dead’s lot, I slipped away and visited our new cemetery.

Planning a visit to our new cemetery was a walk in the park. But executing it in our old burial grounds, where I was sneaking out like a rat, required one to navigate a labyrinth of tombs, similar to a withering urban town of for-rent, three-floored apartments.

At our old cemetery, Tito Tabios, who died at three, rests unperturbed. Above him, on what I referred to as our apartment tomb’s “first floor,” was Lolo Jose, who succumbed to cancer in 2007. And sleeping peacefully on the second floor was Tita Palen, who followed Lolo two years later. The rest of our dead were stacked in two separate “apartments.”

Since our old cemetery had narrow pathways, I had to squeak in between and tread over blocks of concrete as a kid until I could spot a decent exit from afar, where, on the same afternoon, I bolted straight to the gated community beside it.

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I called our new cemetery a “gated community” because it looked like one from the outside, except it was reserved for the rich, with tall hollow-block fences guarding it from unlikely guests, and because the mausoleums inside, with their extravagant railings and pointy roofs, which peeked out of the fences’ brim, resembled the big houses in subdivisions.

When I reached it, the entrance was conveniently and, surprisingly, open. If I were to describe it again, it looked like a gaping chasm waiting to be explored — or robbed, if push had come to shove. Luckily, I was no thief. I did not wait for the dead to wake up and welcome my mortal presence with a heart attack. Had my goal been to join their exclusive club six feet underground, a heart attack would have sufficed. So, without qualms, I invited myself in.

I made my way inside like a jubilant fictional character entering, or floating into, a magical academy for the first time. I walked along a carpet of neatly trimmed grass, which I would have preferred to our lot’s sparse undergrowth. As I did so, my jaw fell to the ground. Unlike the “apartment tombs” of our old cemetery, which I had to crisscross and cut through, the new one housed “mansion graves.”

These mansion graves, upon closer inspection, looked like tiny houses with real doors and real roofs. Some of them, I could not forget, had tiled benches for families to rest while they grieved or celebrated. Some had stairs to add elevation for families to cheat ankle-high floods when they arrive, as they often do in our country. Some, can you imagine, even had fluorescent bulbs hanging from the dome for when families decide to visit after sundown — or simply to guide the ghosts of their loved ones when they lose their path?

Meanwhile, our apartment tombs on the other side of “burial avenue” featured only a pesky undergrowth.

My visit to both our old and new cemeteries painted a grim panorama of our deceased, because there, inequality was visibly alive.

Inequality arises when resources in society are not distributed fairly, giving undue advantage to the privileged while robbing the vast population of opportunities for upward mobility.

For the living, it comes in the form of social class. For the dead, it spells the difference between a crowded apartment tomb and a voluminous mansion grave. This glaring contrast does not come as a result of choice alone, or choice primarily. It is a product, particularly, of economic disparity.

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Economic disparity chiefly determines the orientation of a dead person’s resting place: vertical for the poor, horizontal for the rich.

The poor, many of whom live below the poverty line and whose half bodies lie below the grave, decay in a vault six feet above ground or in apartment tombs, where, five years later, they are removed and replaced.

On the other hand, the rich, who have easy access to most resources, are tucked away in wider slabs of concrete, inside bigger mausoleums, or mansion graves scattered across a fenced earth.

In turn, a cemetery’s verticality or horizontality further reinforces economic disparity between the poor and the rich, which, for that purpose, created these polarizing orientations. As a result, burials get more exclusive and funerals more expensive.

The poor, therefore, fade away in a miscellany of cheaply thin plywood and low-grade construction nails because they could barely afford better. While the rich rest in a heavier casket of tender pillows and satin sheets.

Before Nanay and my family members could notice my absence, I left our new cemetery. I returned to our apartment tombs. The undergrowth was already gone. The naked soil, where it settled for months, had been replaced with candles, which looked like tiny humans praying in front of tall apartments.

As I wondered how many “floors” it would take for the poor like us to climb heaven and stand equal with everyone, I realized death is not a universal leveler. Death, to me, is just a continuation of life’s inequality. I had seen it in our cemeteries, in front of apartment tombs and mansion graves. I had felt it in Nanay’s sullied palms. Their extinction is a permanent extension of existence’s persecution.

Our dead cannot speak for themselves, not anymore, not when they have already escaped mortal suffering. We need to speak with our cemeteries instead, where our dead are lodged forever and where they feel most hopeful about the living. Only then can we turn their hope for equality into our call to action.

So, as the living, we must demand the full provision of basic services from our government. It will guarantee everyone has food to eat, water to utilize, a house to live in, and clothing to wear. It will also ensure everyone can enjoy a decent life where they can find opportunities to expand their choices, even in their last breath.

We must see to it that elected officials work hard with the taxes we are paying them to make cemeteries across the country more humane, where both the dead and the living are not crammed up in tiny spaces, like sardines in a can, or segregated by economic capital.

Ultimately, we must struggle for equality in all aspects of life, so in the future, some of us will not end up in apartment tombs while others will end up in mansion graves.

We left at sundown and boarded a tricycle out of “burial avenue.” Somehow, at our old cemetery, amongst its thick undergrowth, a part of me had died. But I did not know what it was. And I felt like some parts, in some ways, continued to beat, throb, gasp, and fight. All I knew on that November afternoon was that if we wanted our dead to rest equal, we, the living, must first learn to stand equal. – Rappler.com

Phillippe Angelo Hiñosa is a Sociology student at the University of the Philippines Visayas. He writes about family, education, politics, and society based on his personal life. You can reach him at pahinosa@gmail.com.

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