By Ysabel Vitangcol
“How does it feel?”
The reporter asks as he points a microphone underneath the young girl’s chin. A professional television camera focuses on her tiny face, her braids neatly plaited on the crown of her head. The reporter was referring to the narrow bed that she was sitting on, the girl’s little legs dangling outside its borders. She could barely move around in the bed when lying down, but the girl appears very comfortable in her position. The reporter and cameraman patiently anticipate her answer.
She clutches on to her tulle dress that falls just above her ankles. “Comfy,” she replies meekly, smiling.
“Comfy?” The reporter repeats. He seemed amused, as he looked once again at the bed — a bronze, metal coffin with half of its lid closed.
The year was 2004 and I was the girl in the coffin. It was my dad’s showcase for his thesis, incompletion for his Masters in Entrepreneurship degree: his topic was deathcare. I was born to a dynasty of funeral experts. My lolo sa tuhod (great grandfather), Francisco M. Bautista, founded the St. Peter Group of Companies back in 1970, a life plan and death care expert company.
Coming from an impoverished family, it was during the post-Japanese occupation in the Philippines where a young American tapped him for a joint business partnership with him – a memorial park. That didn’t work out, so Lolo came up with selling memorial life plans instead as his next venture. That leap of faith made by my lolo served as a golden ticket to a better life — that would eventually bless future generations abundantly. The third generation of Bautistas, which includes my dad, his siblings and his cousins, now runs the company.
Although I was only eight years at the time — that moment was crystal clear. I lay in the casket, its soft pillows and mattress cushioning my body. It was just like a regular bed, except there was barely room to move. It was designed for the deceased but the lid was open and I had nothing to fear. In my mind, eventually, deceased people would occupy ‘beds’ like these — they would be closed, buried, and the caskets would never be seen again.People fear death and even shudder at the word. Thanatophobia, the fear of death and what happens after, is particularly common among children aged four to eight. I guess for a then eight-year-old, I was one of the few brave souls. In the Philippines, where Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, many believe that an afterlife exists; that heaven awaits the departed soul. This similar belief also applies to other practising religions in the country such as Protestantism and Islam.
I’d like to think that my outlook on death drew heavily not just from my religion as a Protestant, but also from the exposure to the family business. My dad, Jonathan Bautista Vitangcol, is a licensed embalmer. He joined the family business straight out of university. He would answer the phone to sobbing callers, telling him that someone had passed away and the surviving members of the family would be interested in the services of St. Peter.
In funerals, my dad would be hands-on in managing the hearse, the casket and carrying it out of the burial. Though I often got puzzled looks from my classmates and friends when they found out what my father does for a living, I never saw his job as strange. “Hey Ysabel, when I die, make sure I look great even when I’m asleep, okay?” my college friends would tease me during our drinking games. “Sure,” I would jokingly tell them.
When my high school friend Snow visited our home for the first time I heard her shriek. “What the hell are those?” Covering her eyes with one palm, her free hand pointed at the miniature coffins on display on our staircase. Eventually, she scrambled behind me, hiding. I revealed to her that it was my dad’s collection, and revealed to her the line of work he was in. “I’m not afraid of death but I am afraid of caskets,” she told me in Filipino. “They are two different things. Caskets give me goosebumps,” she shuddered.
My lolo Francisco was unsure of what he was getting into when he started St. Peter, but he wanted to be of service to the Filipino people. Though he lacked formal education, he studied and grew to love the funeral industry. He departed on the 25th of March, 1996 (ironically, the day I was born) but left behind a vision that he wanted for the company: to change the landscape of death care in the Philippines.
“I lay in the casket, its soft pillows and mattress cushioning my body. It was just like a regular bed”
The fear of death is very present in the Philippines. The war on drugs conducted by President Rodrigo Duterte is estimated to have cost 20,000 lives. Last year a measles outbreak claimed 5,000 lives. Aside from religion, Filipino people have many superstitions about death, that date from the Spanish colonial era. These include not going directly home after a wake in order to ‘pagpag’ (shake off) bad spirits and refraining from combing your hair late at night as this is believed to invite an early death for your parents.
My family wanted to change the way Filipinos think about death, as well as to establish a new identity for their company. They wanted to break the stereotypes and taboos about death and give it a better, more positive outlook. Hence the Pink Casket.
Pink is an uncommon colour for a coffin. The colour rarely associates itself with matters of the grave. According to psychologists, the colour pink supposedly exudes a calming effect; a shade called ‘drunk-tank pink’ is occasionally used in prisons to calm inmates. It is associated with softness, kindness, nurturing, compassion, joy, and happiness.
In the Philippines at the time, the generic colours for coffins were the basics — brown, white, black and grey. St. Peter was the first funeral home in the Philippines to market a pink one. To introduce the Pink Casket to the public, St. Peter released its first television commercial in 2008 the same year it was launched. In this commercial, a woman sits and converses with a man in Tagalog. The camera pans over a printed spread of gowns, choices of flowers, and souvenirs. Further, the man asks about the number of attendees. “Everything should be perfect,” the woman says.
To a casual viewer, this sounds like a wedding planner. But, underneath the commercial’s flowery veils, the woman finally asks the kicker: “My casket… can you make it… pink?” She’s not planning her wedding; she’s planning her funeral.Six years after the first Pink Casket advertisement, St. Peter launched their second television commercial.
The fifteen-second video — half the running time of the previous one — shows a typical pampering session.
As in a salon, a stylist washed a client’s hair, rolled out make-up brushes, applied makeup, and even gave a soothing massage. The finishing touch: a pair of gold earring clipped onto the ears of the same woman, eyes closed. As with the first video, appearances are deceiving. The final shot reveals the commercial’s grim twist: the pampered woman is a corpse.
Topping it all off, the commercial ends with a new tagline: “Parang natutulog lang.” As if they were sleeping.
I was a sudden celebrity on social media. Right at the heart of my Facebook feed is the “Parang Natutulog Lang” commercial where the response was a remarkable mix between amusement and offence, clamouring it was smart marketing or a bad take on a sensitive topic. But, controversial or not, the commercial was viewed over three million times and demand for St Peter’s services soared. The Pink Casket had done its job.
One time in 2015, Lolo Francisco’s son Emyl, a board member of the company (technically my grandfather), took my cousins and me around the operations floor of a St. Peter Chapel in Cebu City, a province located south of Manila. With us were a few of my cousins’ college friends who were holidaying with us in Cebu.
“My family wanted to change the way Filipinos think about death, as well as to establish a new identity for their company”
This spacious room can comfortably hold twenty-five people. However, instead of people, the room housed empty caskets of different colours, materials, sizes, and designs. All were made of metal. All were clad in either white, black, brown, and — yes, you guessed it — pink.
Caskets for adults. Caskets for children. Rounded corners. Gold handles. Black end caps. Swing bar handles. Decals of The Last Supper. Spray-painted angels. A casket is now a canvas. (Did you know that Michael Jackson was laid to rest in a bronze casket, coated in gold?)
Considering that it was a room small enough to hear everyone else, I overheard murmurs among my cousins’ friends saying how creeped out they are but somehow a tad fascinated at the same time. It was a totally different story when my Lolo Emyl led us to a wide window, revealing the morgue. Two embalmers worked on a corpse of an old woman on a long table made of metal. There were shrieks and “eeeps!” from my cousin’s friends, some covering their eyes and walked out of the room. Death was literally right in front of them, but they still weren’t ready to accept and face it all together.
The Pink Casket faces challenges every single day: breaking the stereotypes and taboos of death. Despite their impact, new commercials are not sufficient to change the whole world.Recently, St. Peter started manufacturing USB sticks, designed like a little pink casket.
The pink casket was everywhere. Prometheus once said, “big things have small beginnings”. Perhaps in this context, the latter’s size, quite literally. It was also a way to help lessen fertrophobia, an actual fear of caskets; just like what my friend Snow has.
A new life plan holder received the USB stick as a freebie. Like the commercials, satisfied customers shared the little curio on Facebook. Compared to the reactions from the first and second commercials that made rounds online, death was received better.
My dad is at his busiest every October, when St. Peter Group of Companies holds the Death Care Week, a seven-day event to commemorate the foundation day of the company (October 27, 1970) to All Saints Day and All Souls Day (November 1 & 2, respectively). During this week, the Pink Casket finally comes out to welcome its fans in the form of the Pink Casket Photo Booth.
Found everywhere throughout the week, the pink coffin stands upright, hoisted but supported. The front lid is wide open; the lower half is closed. Customers can freely step inside, seeing what it’s like inside a casket and getting their picture taken.
The experience was like my own experience more than a decade ago, when that interviewer stood aghast at my comfort inside the casket. However, the Pink Casket made the experience much more palatable for everyone else. The unique immersion helped visualise one’s own mortality.
Eventually, the Pink Casket Photo Booth trended across the country, prompting thousands of photos across the web. Even now, the phenomenon continues to evolve. Sometimes, two or three people can fit inside, creating more unique photo opportunities. Because of the success, St., Peter created a special Pink Casket for an entire group. The bigger casket sported only the casket frame without the entire body.
Despite my limited fear of death, admittedly, I found a standing casket for a photo op purpose quite odd in facing such a fear. But I wanted to understand how it has helped others overcome their apprehensions on death, so I myself gave it a try.
In reality, no more than one person can be buried in one casket. But I found it amazing to think about how curiosity toppled agitation. There’s a sense of security [in asking] seeking companionship from confidants when it comes to facing something that makes you anxious. I suppose that was how overcoming these fears were made possible.
Our own individual deaths are our own challenges to face. However, in this challenge, we are not alone. Everyone dies. The Pink Casket’s impact on social media shows us that we don’t have to be alone. We were getting somewhere — definitely, a step closer — towards my lolo sa tuhod’s dream for the company, for the world.
Now that I have graduated, I am always asked whether or not I would join St. Peter and help my father and the rest of the family in their efforts of making my lolo’s vision for the deathcare landscape in the country come true.
“Pink is an uncommon colour for a coffin. The colour rarely associates itself with matters of the grave.”
As I grew up and learned more about life and death, I strongly believe that the birth of the Pink Casket greatly helped in adjusting from an innocent and naive perspective in living to the fullest. Through the years that lead up to today, I occasionally faced grief from untimely demises, such as my decade-long ice skating coach who trained me until I decided to hang up my skates from competing, my favourite YouTube artist being gunned after her concert meet and greet and even losing immediate family members of close friends. Being exposed to the deathcare industry doesn’t necessarily prepare you for death.
I was sixteen years old when I experienced grief for the second time (the first was my maternal great grand lolo in the US). My cousin’s grandfather succumbed to cancer at eighty years old. That hit me hard. In Filipino culture, family goes beyond the four walls of a house. Despite not sharing a common lineage, my cousin’s grandfather was like my own grandfather too. He constantly prayed for me and loved me like his own apo (grandchild).
He lived a full life — building churches, serving the Lord and His people. He was an all-around family man. He was a man of good virtue. He had selfless dreams for his family and for God’s people. It was time for him to rest. On the last night of his wake, my family and I paid our respects to him. In my decades of attending wakes, it was my first time to attend a viewing that had no glass covering the departed. Although not pink, his dark brown casket was covered by flowers like an entrance to a garden.
It was time to say goodbye. I was holding back my emotions just so I can compose a short prayer of thanksgiving for his life as I approached his side. I held his hand, another first for me — to hold a lifeless body. It was cold, stiff, stuffed like a plush doll, except I felt the roughness of his hands — a denotation of hard labour which he encountered in his early years as a construction worker and later on in his life until his death, a bishop.
I thought fear would cripple me, pinning me to the spot.
I studied his face. He looked so peaceful.
“Parang natutulog lang,” I told myself.
Featured image courtesy of The Vitangcol family archive