Outside the crematorium in this arid patch of land in QC, transporters are made to wait outside with the cadaver of someone who most likely died from COVID-19 related illness.
Culture Spotlight

The backliners: The faceless men of Baesa Crematorium

When the fight is over, and the virus has won, these are the people who risk their lives to attend to the dead — making sure COVID-19 does not pull anybody else into the grave with it. By CHIARA ZAMBRANO
| Mar 30 2020

It sits at the end of an old public cemetery – the tallest structure of the lot, but still easy to miss in the overgrowth.

What will strike you most is the newness of it. The shiny metal signage makes the surrounding apartment-style tombs seem even older than they already are. That these tombs are painted in different colors does nothing to mask their aging. Where epitaphs used to be are now gaping holes from where the bones inside have been pulled out.

The dust from the dirt road and the scorching sun make the scene all the more arid. But somehow, the Baesa Crematorium still looks clean, despite itself being abandoned.

Said to be a white elephant project from a previous administration, it was reportedly built without proper permits and was eventually shelved. But as the city – and the nation – creep slowly into desperate times, the present Quezon City government checked all the cards it had on deck, and saw how this could be useful.

On March 24, they announced that the Baesa Crematorium would now be operational, and that the local government was offering free cremation services to indigent Quezon City residents who will die of COVID-19 or other related illnesses. My team and I decided to see the facility on the 26th of March, two days since it was declared open.

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The plan was to make a story about the fact that it’s up and running, ready to receive customers, and inform people how things would work should they eventually need to use its service. But as we entered the rusted cemetery gate, an empty ambulance drove past us.

We looked at the security guard on duty. “Galing ba yun sa—”

“Opo. May dala yun.”

A huff of breath left my chest. It turns out we weren’t just going to see a building. We were about to witness a COVID-19 cremation.

**

“Mask. Gloves. Walang hahawak sa kahit ano. Walang lalapit sa kahit ano. Ang gamit hindi ipapatong sa kahit saan. Grabeng distansya gagawin natin dito,” I tell my team in a loud voice that may not have been too convincing. My mind raced.

Do we want to do this, Chiara?

We walk the dirt road toward the crematorium, past the tombs of pink and yellow.

The Baesa Crematorium: the last stop for indigent Quezon City residents who lost the battle against COVID-19.

I guess we’ll see.

Fronting the crematorium was an open-air foyer. In it, we see a handful of men fixing each other’s personal protective equipment. Others were already behind a glass door where the crematory machines hummed quietly.

“Mayro’n na po dyan. Kakasalang lang,” said one of them, pointing to one of two furnaces inside. A panel of red and green buttons were lit up. At the front of the machine, a small circular peephole gave a glimpse of the flames working within.

“Apat na po ang naki-cremate natin. Meron pa po tayong tatlo na hinihintay,” said Paulo Hipolito, supervisor of the Baesa Crematorium.

“Nakakalungkot isipin.”

Hipolito’s team was dressed in full PPEs and moved swiftly – to some extent, they looked like healthcare workers at a hospital, trying to save a life instead of burning a body.

“Mas safe po na ike-cremate natin ang mga COVID-related na namatay po para syempre masusunog na po yung sakit niya,” Hipolito said. “Malaking tulong na rin po ito sa indigent families natin, mga wala pong kakayahan para magbayad sa regular na cremation.”

**

As the staff watch the burning peephole, I walk around to the side of the building. A tent stood on the dirt road, offering the only shade I could see. Huddled inside was a small group sitting on plastic chairs, their backs turned to the old tombs, their eyes facing the wall behind which the furnace continued to burn.

The younger ones in the group sat around an old man. All their shoulders were hunched, their gaze lowered. Sometimes, one of them would reach for another, and would hold each other close.

They all had masks, I couldn’t see their faces. But one only needed to watch them for a moment to know who they were.

Someone’s family.

I ask my cameraman, Percy, not to film them. We would find ways to tell this story without poking our fingers further into their open wound. If that was all the help we could give, Percy and I would give it.

“Yung family member, as much as possible, hanggang isa lang po. Parang magiging witness lang sila dito,” said Hipolito. That was the rule, he said. But from the looks of it, none of them had the heart to turn this family away.

Getting ready for cremation.

All Hipolito could ask them was to keep their distance from his operators.

“’Di sila pinapalapit masyado, para maprotektahan din yung mga nandito sa amin,” he said, acknowledging that even the relatives might still be carriers of the disease, too.

“Malungkot sila,” he said sympathetically. “Pero ‘di ko masyadong nilalapitan, to observe the social distancing.”

In the heat of the noonday sun, I felt the coldness of the protocol that they needed to enforce. The mission was to cremate, and make sure virus died with the last body it brought down with it. Grieving, while necessary for the soul, will have to be done elsewhere, by a different set of people. Not them. 

**

Hours later, a second ambulance arrives bringing the second body. The transporters, too, are dressed in full PPEs, their ambulances rigged with improvised plastic sheets that separate the drivers from the cadaver. They place the body into the second furnace. Both peepholes now glow with a blazing fire behind them.

A clerk busies himself with paperwork at the foyer, copying details from death certificates onto their crematory logbook. All seven people lined up for cremation were in their late fifties and older, statistically matching the age profile most vulnerable to the disease.

But not a single Cause of Death read “COVID-19.”

“Hindi na po kasi na-test yung iba. Yung iba naman, kung na-test man, sa tagal nung result hindi na nila naabutan. Kaya ayan lang ang alam namin. Severe pneumonia, o itong Severe Acute Respiratory Disease,” said the clerk, reading off his records.

There it is again. The heartlessness of it all.

These people, who loved once and were once loved, were snatched from their family’s arms faster than anyone could say “Please, stay.” They had to die alone, in great pain they were never able to share. Now their bodies, wrapped airtight in cadaver bags, must be handled by strangers covered in masks, with loved ones not allowed to come close even in death.

And their families, who must grieve alone, will have to lay their memory to rest without ever laying the question to rest: What is the name of the monster that took you away? Is that you, COVID-19? Or are you just in our heads?

My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of another vehicle approaching. The clerk, and other staff without PPEs look up, then quickly move away to the side. Body number three has arrived.

**

The transporters park the ambulance in front of the building and carefully pull the stretcher out from inside. Like all the rest, it is completely wrapped in a thick white bag, with only the faintest outline of the human form visible. The men try to push the stretcher up two steps leading into the foyer, but falter at the weight.

“Huy, patulong naman pag-akyat,” they call out.

“Ay boss, hindi kami pwede. Protocol namin yan, hindi kami pwedeng maghawak niyan,” Hipolito replied. “Kung sino nagdala dito, sila maghahakot.”

The transporters, annoyed, lift the stretcher up themselves, mumbling as they wheel the body towards the first furnace.

“Dapat tulung-tulong tayo dito. Anong gagawin niyo rito? Papanoorin niyo lang kami?”

Hipolito and the rest keep their distance, and their silence. They understand that the transporters are anxious at having to touch the body longer than they wanted. Perhaps they were upset that no one else seemed to want to share the risk. But Hipolito’s orders were to keep the staff safe, in order to keep the crematorium running. Darker times are ahead.

“Poprotektahan naman namin ang sarili namin as much as possible po,” said the young supervisor. “Duty call na rin siguro po eh.”

The transporters lift the body bag onto the gurney. I look away just as they push it into the fire. I cannot watch this, not yet. Darker times are ahead. If I want to be useful in the long run, I need to preserve my sanity for as long as I can.

When I look again, the transporters had already walked off to begrudgingly disinfect themselves at a separate room. Hipolito’s men are back on the case, pressing the buttons, using a stick to push the cadaver as far into the furnace as they can. I notice them avoiding a large pot that was at their feet, with an industrial fan blowing directly at it.

A staffer noticed me looking, and said, “Gusto niyo pong makita? Iyan na po yung buto nung nauna, pinapalamig lang.” I respectfully declined, and he got back to work.

Such was the growing demand for the Baesa Crematorium, that the bones of one do not even have time to cool before another body must be burned again.

“Hindi kayo natatakot?” I ask Hipolito, who himself is a resident of Quezon City where the largest number of cases in the Philippines is being recorded.

Such was the growing demand for the Baesa Crematorium, that the bones of one do not even have time to cool before another body must be burned again.

“Andun na rin po yun maam,” he said, and tells me that he lives in a community with informal settlers – impoverished and heavily populated areas where COVID-19 would be the hardest to contain. He fears for his city and what lies ahead, as more Filipinos are testing positive by the hundreds everyday.

He fears, too, for his own loved ones, and the risk he is putting them in by saying yes to this job. “Siyempre, uuwi ako sa family ko. Nag-aalala sila. Pero hindi ko naman po pwedeng talikuran ito, ma’am. Ito na rin po siguro yung magiging tulong ko sa nangyayari po sa atin ngayon.” 

**

Late in the afternoon, a staffer steps out of the cremation room carrying ashes.

Still in PPE, he pours the ashes into a plastic bag, and carefully seals it with plastic tape. He then takes a marble urn and opens the lid. Just as he was about to put the ashes in, he stops.

Attending to death certificates.

“Yung pamilya?”

The group waiting by the tent walk slowly into the foyer, young ones following the pace of the aged grandfather they were helping up. They blink for a second, not knowing what to look for. The staffer holding the ashes waves, points at the urn, and launches into a practiced spiel.

“Kailangan niyo po mag-witness nito. Ipapasok na po ba natin ang abo?”

Each member of the family nods, having been left with no other thing to say.

As they silently watch the process, the young ones hold on to each other by the hip, or discreetly rub the small of each other’s backs. A hand of one reaches out to clutch the hand of another – I am not sure who is supporting whom. The grandfather, not saying a word, seemed to want to lean into the ashes. The young men hold his shoulders firmly, as if both to keep him steady and let him know they were there.

There was no sound, there were no sobs, only these smallest gestures of sorrow, as the faceless man in a mask places the plastic bag of ash inside a pink satin pouch, places the pouch into the urn, and again seals the urn with tape to make sure nothing leaks.

Truth be told, this was the last goodbye. This is the precise moment where the tears must fall, where you can cast an “I love you” into the wind, hoping they hear it. There is no better moment to grieve but here.

But nothing in the process indicated there was a space or time for emotions. It was not a ritual, but a transaction.

“Salamat po. Condolence po,” said the cremator, handing them the urn, and returning to the other bodies in the furnace.

The family stood there for a while, not quite knowing what to do next. One by one, they walk away, with what is left of their loved one finally back in their arms. Now, they can grieve. But behind closed doors. Away from others. In the confinement of their home. Just as protocol dictates.

But nothing in the process indicated there was a space or time for emotions. It was not a ritual, but a transaction.

As I watched the family walk wordlessly into the sunlight, I could feel my chest seize up in sobs. What kind of evil deprives us of our loved ones, and then deprives us of the space to weep? How many more times will this happen, to how many more families? What are the chances that this will happen to my own?

I slink away to the side of the building where no one can see the tears drip onto my mask. Damn it, I can’t even touch my face to wipe it off, I thought with contempt. Is there no reprieve from this coldness at all?

In the distance, I saw Percy walk away, hiding his own tears. We will probably never talk about it. We will probably never have to. 

**

Minutes later, another white vehicle comes zipping toward the building. Another ambulance. The fourth body.

“Puno pa po kami,” Hipolito says to the men in the ambulance.

“Hala. Eh paano ito?” said the transporter, gesturing toward the cadaver inside.

“Paki-parada niyo na lang po siguro muna sa tabi. Tatawagin na lang namin kayo pag may bakante na.”

I looked around the cemetery. There was nowhere to keep a cadaver parked with safety and the dignity it deserves. There was nothing but dirt road, vines and shrubs, empty tombs, and the summer heat.

Shrugging, the transporters back the ambulance up, and park it on the dirt road behind my team’s pickup. Inside the compartment, I could see that the cadaver bag was already covered in beads of sweat, as the cold of the frozen body slowly thawed under the sun.

A crematorium staffer prepares the urn to be turned over to the dead's family.

One of the drivers sat exhausted on the crematorium floor, careful not to rip his PPE. He was promptly asked to leave.

“Pasensya na po kayo, hindi kayo pwedeng umupo dyan. Protocol po. Pasensya na po.”

They walk out into the tent, leaning against the old tombs, the only place where there was shade and comfort.

-

As of March 29, 4P.M., the Department of Health has confirmed 1,418 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines.

8.7% of this total are residents of Quezon City, which logs the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country. Quezon City is also the largest city/municipality in Metro Manila.

According to city records, 113 Quezon City residents have tested positive since March 28, 11P.M.

The Baesa Crematorium has cremated 20 individuals in six days