For an industry that relies on the mortality rate to stay alive, the mortuary business is an unsurprising magnet for controversy.
Dealing with the dead isn’t the most glamorous profession in the world. And with a reputation that recalls the immortalized image of a tape measure-carrying mortician with a stare colder than death itself, the morbid nature of the job has cast quite a malignant light on all ventures relating to it.
“Mortuary owners have been pictured as vultures,” says Raffy Jose, owner of Arlington Memorial Chapels & Crematory. “[Many people think that] funeral homes are here to take advantage of those who have suffered a loss.”
There are countries wherein funeral directors need to complete mortuary science programs to qualify for a license to operate, but the Philippine mortuary industry is less regulated. Wakes and funerals are traditionally held in the comfort —or perhaps discomfort—of Filipino homes, an open-house practice that poses certain difficulties particularly in the unsafe urban setting.
Two decades ago, Nestor Jose, Mr. Jose's father, thought of offering professional but personalized memorial services to the bereaved. Then a casket supplier to well-off families, the older Mr. Jose opened Arlington, which in time expanded its reach to the lower socioeconomic segments, even starting its Libreng Libing project for the less-privileged by coordinating with mayors and giving each municipality 10 caskets for their own use.
Arlington prides itself with creating a comfortable setting in its memorial services, one that aims at celebrating the life—more than mourning the death—of the departed, and allows loved ones to look back on the funeral as a kind of personal accomplishment. “Families need to be able to express their feelings, and the way they can do that is to bring out things that they’ve shared with the person,” says Mr. Jose. “Pictures, CDs, books – it should be a tribute to the person, like [what one would do for] a celebrant.”
Technology has crept its way into the supposedly innovation-deprived business. Mr. Jose recalls how one family whose departed happened to be quite an active online social network user had his Facebook wall flashed on the screen, with condolences from relatives and friends around the world being posted in real time.
Arlington has made a few advances of its own. Instead of dragging families to a tour of its casket showroom, it now uses an iPad to let clients view and pick from its current stock—a welcome innovation in a sector that for a long time has been bogged down by tradition, as well as a convenient option for families who need to decide on matters together but can't be at the funeral home at the same time.
But if there is anything that Mr. Jose has learned from the business, it is that planning a party for the dead goes beyond choosing a good coffin. “I’ve met people who are very good car salesmen, [people who] can sell the clothes on your back. They can probably sell a lot, but the families [they will be dealing with] will definitely end up feeling that they’ve been taken advantage of [after the sale],” says Mr. Jose.
It is important, he adds, to let sincerity and concern come across throughout the service, given that all the clients that enter the funeral home’s doors are going through a difficult period. “You can make money in any business, but in this industry, you really need to have the heart to help families,” says Mr. Jose. “Without that it’s going to be very hard for you to be successful.”
The hallway of Arlington's office is lined with letters and e-mails from families who have expressed their gratitude to the staff for their care and attention, which at times extend months after Arlington has rendered the funeral service. “These are what makes the business rewarding,” says Mr. Jose.- Anna Patricia G. Valerio
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