Manila, Philippines – The body of 33-year-old Vicente Batiancila was displayed in a glass-topped coffin in a three-walled tin-roof shack. His family has been holding his wake for three weeks.
It was mid-October, and the temperature in Metro Manila routinely rises above 30 degrees Celsius. His corpse, in danger of decomposing, was in need of a fresh injection of formaldehyde at a cost of 3,500 pesos [$73]. This, however, was the least of his family’s worries.
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If they failed to get some money together quickly, Batiancila ‘s body would be buried anonymously with several other corpses in an unmarked mass grave.
Batiancila ‘s friends and family observed the wake around his coffin, playing card games. They gambled, betting sums of money as a means of donating funds, known as “abuloy”, for Batiancila ‘s funeral – funds his family did not have.
Batiancila ‘s mother Dorotea, said he was like many in the Market 3 slum in the Navotas Fish Port Complex, a district in the impoverished northwestern region of Metro Manila where his family live. He worked part-time unloading fish from the boats that came into the harbour, pulling 11 or 12-hour shifts a couple of times a week.
The work was hard, the hours long. Batiancila took to using shabu, a readily available methamphetamine, to help him get through.
He didn’t use shabu for pleasure, or leisure, his family insisted. They said he wasn’t an addict or a pusher.
Yet, when the police raided a neighbourhood drug den where Batiancila was making a delivery of milkfish, he was killed all the same. He was, his family said, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now Batiancila ‘s partner, Jocelyn Bellarmina, his mother, and his children were not only left mourning his death. They were also left scrambling to pay for a funeral for which they had never planned – held liable for fees they could not afford.
They didn’t have much, said Bellarmina, surviving mostly on the 2,000 pesos [$41] a month Batiancila ‘s casual work brought in. But they had each other.
“I was surprised that it happened,” Bellarmina said, holding 10-month-old baby Jake on her lap. Some mornings, she told Al Jazeera, Jake had put his hand on the glass covering of the coffin, stroking it in the same way he did when trying to wake his father by pawing softly at his face.
“We were very happy.”
Deposit for the body
When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in June of this year, he made his electorate a promise.
In his inaugural address and several times since, he swore to to eradicate the scourge of drug use from his country by any means necessary, even if it meant shooting first and asking questions later, if at all.
At present, on any given night in Metro Manila, the city’s funeral parlours receive fresh bodies courtesy of Duterte’s war on drugs.
Some narcotics dealers or users are killed by police in the fallout of buy-bust operations. Others fall victim to contract killers in extrajudicial killings.
The bodies that appear in the streets nightly are collected by funeral parlour employees for embalming and storage. Metro Manila lacks its own central morgue, and instead relies on its hundreds of funeral parlours to store its dead until they are buried.
If a family member comes forward to identify a body, the body is usually given over to the family for the tradition of the wake, an important custom in a country that is more than 80 percent Roman Catholic.
At the time of identification, these families are also informed of the fees they now owe for the funeral services. In the context of Duterte’s drug war, these fees are levied upon poverty-stricken families from slums where most of the police operations or extrajudicial killings take place, and the families are not able to pay.
If they cannot raise a deposit of about 5,000 pesos [$104], the body is not released to them for the wake.
In Batiancila ‘s case, the family was relatively lucky. His sister, a dressmaker living in Valenzuela city, was able to come up with the deposit. Eusebio Funeral Services, which collected his body from the scene where he died, allowed them take Vicente’s body home.
The reprieve, or any sense of relief the family felt, however, was short-lived.
During the wake, Batiancila ‘s relatives learned that if they couldn’t come up with the remaining 26,000 pesos [$540] they still owed Eusebio Funeral Services for the burial, his body would be tossed into one of the unmarked mass graves popping up in corners and along footpaths of the sprawling metropolis’s public cemeteries.
Buried without identity
Batiancila will have had the same fate as the metro area’s growing number of “Mr X” cases.
Mass burials such as those which took place on Wednesday October 19 and Thursday October 20 are exactly what Vicente Batiancila’s family fears most.
A day earlier, Blanquita Angeles had registered a complaint with the Quezon City Health Department about a rancid smell emanating from the funeral parlour next to her home, Henry’s Memorial Services.
What followed was a macabre removal operation that lasted two days.
From Wednesday to Thursday, approximately 340 unidentified bodies, all lacking any form of documentation, were removed from the funeral parlour.
The parlour had its own morgue but, according to Dr Verdades Linga, Head of the Quezon City Health Department, did not have the proper sanitary licence to store the dead. Upon inspection, the premises was immediately shut down.
Employees from other funeral homes were also on hand during the removal operation on Wednesday, one bearing the death certificate for a Japanese national, a man by the name of Toshihiko Taniguchi.
The employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Henry’s Memorial Services had been accepting bodies from funeral parlours which did not have the space to store them, for a fee. The practice is illegal, said Dr Linga.
Many of the bodies removed from the premises were medical cadavers, or so badly decomposed as to be unidentifiable.
Six bodies discovered in an improvised storage tank in the rear of the complex, filled nearly to the brim with formaldehyde, were still well-preserved. Their facial features were intact, crudely drawn tattoos on their skin discernible.
In theory, these bodies, all men, and all appearing to have suffered gunshot wounds near the heart, could still have been identified by their families. But this was not the case. In response to a question on whether any effort would be made to identify the bodies which could still be possibly identified, Dr Linga offered only the following: “Do I have to publicise their faces? Of course not.”
In the end, all bodies taken from Henry’s Memorial Services were loaded into dump trucks and taken to Novaliches Public Cemetery in the north of Quezon City. There they were thrown into two unmarked pits, the tops then sealed over with concrete and soil.
By the afternoon of Thursday October 20, it was done. Any hope of identification had come to an abrupt end, the bodies buried despite the official policy per Presidential Decree No 856, s 1975, section 91 specifying: “No remains shall be buried without a death certificate.”
Hundreds more unclaimed and unidentified dead added to an ever-growing number.
A historical pattern
Later in Metro Manila, police operations against drug dealers and users continued throughout the economically depressed regions of the metropolis on the evenings of Thursday October 20 and Friday 21, extending into the early hours of the following days.
Eusebio Funeral Services of Malabon were kept busy with calls to collect bodies.
The first on Friday evening was identified by an aunt as Ryan Pareja, a known drug user in his neighbourhood, shot four times in the torso by four unidentified gunmen neighbours speculated to be policemen due to the fact that they fled the scene on four separate motorcycles.
At the scene of the shooting on Dagat-Dagatan Avenue in Caloocan, staff of Eusebio Funeral Services were on hand not only to retrieve the corpse, but also to assess the ability of the family to pay the cost of the funeral.
If the family is unable to pay, the parlour will absorb the cost of 5,000 pesos [$104] for embalming the body and that of a burial in a mass grave, managing director Orly Fernandez told Al Jazeera.
In mid-October, Eusebio Funeral Services had five unidentified corpses on hand. After 90 days unclaimed, the bodies will be buried in a mass grave.
In September the parlour had interred another 16 unclaimed and unidentified deceased in mass graves in Navotas, Caloocan, and Malabon, the three districts where the parlour is in charge of collecting bodies.
Fernandez has been in the funeral business for 44 years. In an interview in the early hours of the morning, he pointed out that unidentified persons that fell in politically motivated campaigns of violence and ended up buried anonymously are nothing new in Manila.
He rattled off a laundry list of former administrations under which his parlours have received dead who went unclaimed.
But a call he received to retrieve the body of a young girl, seven-year-old Marianela Cordez Ramos, later revealed his true feelings regarding Duterte’s war against Manila’s users and pushers.
The girl, according to police, was raped and killed by a drug addict.
As Fernandez waited for the family to come and identify the body, lying near that of Pareja in the parlour’s small morgue, a rag still stuffed in her mouth, he made his thoughts on what should happen to Metro Manila’s known drug users.
“It’s all right with me for all the drug addicts to be killed,” he said. “A person in his right mind wouldn’t do that to a kid.”
Vincente’s family were unable to raise the funds necessary to hold a proper funeral by the end of the three-week wake. In the end, they resorted to borrowing from a loan shark to pay the balance they still owed to the funeral parlour. After paying the funeral parlour, the family was finally able to lay him to rest on Sunday, October 23.