A columbarium becomes an accidental memorial for drug war victims

Aie Balagtas See, photos by Ciriaco Santiago

Posted at Jul 04 2022 02:13 PM | Updated as of Jul 04 2022 03:43 PM

Luzviminda Siapo carries a black garbage bag containing her son’s remains after the exhumation and transports them to La Loma columbarium in Caloocan City. [ITALS] Ciriaco Santiago
Luzviminda Siapo carries a black garbage bag containing her son’s remains after the exhumation and transports them to La Loma columbarium in Caloocan City. Ciriaco Santiago

When Luzviminda Siapo brought the black garbage bags containing her son’s remains to La Loma Cemetery last May 13, she had no idea that her struggle would spark the creation of an accidental memorial hall for victims of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

Without clear indication where investigations into the previous administration's drug war are headed, the pseudo remembrance hall serves as a grim reminder of the violence that Duterte unleashed in the past six years.

The accidental memorial hall was an unwitting handiwork of four women: Siapo, the mother who wished to be buried with her son’s bones; Mary Anne Domingo, the wife who promised her husband to resist cremation at all cost; Grace Garganta, the daughter who wanted to preserve her father’s remains; and Sister May Cano, the nun dedicated to helping families of victims of extra-judicial killings (EJKs).

“This appears like it was destined to happen, don’t you think?” Domingo said.

Cano works for Caritas Kalookan, Inc., the social arm of the Diocese of Caloocan. The same diocese owns and operates La Loma Catholic Cemetery.

Sister May Cano is flanked by two priests in San Roque Church as they talk to relatives of drug war victims. [ITALS] Aie Balagtas See
Sister May Cano is flanked by two priests in San Roque Church as they talk to relatives of drug war victims.  Aie Balagtas See

Unknown to these women, their coming together would turn a seven-layer columbarium vault into a common resting place for EJK victims, whose remains were exhumed after the five-year lease on their niches expired.

Cano said families who sought assistance from her office mostly came from poor neighborhoods. Seeing the gravity of the problem, Cano approached her superior, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who immediately released funds for reinterment services. The diocese has so far helped six families and are open to helping more.

Bones and ashes belonging to Siapo’s son, Garganta’s father and brother, Noel Sison, and Raymond Cortez occupied five boxes on the upper deck of the columbarium. More vaults are expected to be filled in the coming months after some kin opted to follow Siapo’s footsteps.

The arrangement of these vaults were reminiscent of the old “Tokhang Village” in Navotas Public Cemetery, which earned its moniker after drug war kills in the city were accidentally stacked together in the same rows and columns of apartment-type niches that were littered by garbage. Tokhang Village has been torn down to give way to renovation.

Unlike the old Navotas Cemetery, the resting place of victims in La Loma was clean, spacious, and exuded dignity. 

After David released the funds, Cano tapped Domingo to make a list of people that the diocese will help. Then, the duo started looking for a better resting place for the remains.

Getting there was not an easy ride for Siapo. It took a lot of humiliation and begging, making her journey an act of defiance because, for the first time since 2016, amid the lack of justice for EJK victims, she felt relatives finally had a say on how to handle the bodies of their slain family members.

Siapo’s journey began with a falling out with Project Arise, an offshoot program of Project Paghilom, a non-profit project of another church group based in Manila City.

Project Arise offered free services to help victims cope with exhumation fees. Randy delos Santos, a program coordinator, said he has not heard anyone complain about cremation.

Delos Santos explained that what Project Arise offers is strictly an exhume-and-cremate program,and that they cannot entertain all requests because reinterment prices are too steep. 

Delos Santos further claims that they do not cremate without the victims’ consent, and that those who refused their programs have cemetery graves of their own.

There is no scientific or medical basis for choosing cremation, said Delos Santos, except that it is “cheaper” at P50,000 per body and the urns are “space savers”. These marble urns will be transferred to a more permanent place this year, he said.

Project Arise has helped dozens of families since 2021. But it left some conflicted because while they want to avail of the post-mortem examination, they also wish to have a traditional resting place for their loved ones. The package, however, does not offer wiggle rooms for families, making most of them feel that beggars can't be choosers.

As a result, some, like Garganta, agree to cremation services with a heavy heart. Others, like Siapo, choose to let go of investigation that might help criminal cases in the future. In short, she chose the body over accountability. Domingo, for her part, is still looking for other opportunities to attain post-mortem examination for her husband and son.

The exhumed body of Raymart Siapo is presented to his mother Luzviminda after it is exhumed when its five-year lease on his tomb at a public cemetery expired. [ITALS] Ciriaco Santiago
The exhumed body of Raymart Siapo is presented to his mother Luzviminda after it is exhumed when its five-year lease on his tomb at a public cemetery expired.  Ciriaco Santiago

When Siapo rejected cremation, she was left with two grim options: Ash or the mass ossuary where unclaimed remains are dumped in cemeteries. The mother, who had not seen her son in years before the drug war violently took him away, refused to buckle. 

Desperate pleas to find a proper resting place for Raymart led Siapo to Domingo, who, like her, strongly opposed the cremation offers for her husband and son.

Domingo talked to Cano, who helped Siapo, a former domestic helper in Kuwait, secure a slot in the columbarium.

Domingo said the Diocese of Caloocan has been quietly providing assistance to relatives of EJK victims to buffer the cost of exhumation and reinterment without theatrics or media fanfare. 

A graveyard worker washes and scrapes the remains of another victim of extra-judicial killing before it is given back to its relatives. [ITALS] Ciriaco Santiago
A graveyard worker washes and scrapes the remains of another victim of extra-judicial killing before it is given back to its relatives.  Ciriaco Santiago

The diocese also provides education assistance to the children that the victims left behind.

When La Loma workers asked Siapo to choose a spot for Raymart’s bones on May 13, she was suprised that Raymart’s vault was right beside the boxes that contained the Gargantas’ urns. A few weeks later, Noel’s remains would join them through the help of Cano and Domingo.

“It was unintended,” said Cano. “It just so happened that these were the only available spots at that time.”

Domingo and Cano also helped Garganta secure a slot in the columbarium after her siblings started talking to their father’s urn. Grace thought it was a bad idea to keep the urns at home as it reopens the wounds and stops them from moving forward.

Cano said the teachings of the Catholic church “disallow urns to be kept at home.”

Like Siapo, Garganta abhors cremation for her family members. She learned too late that other options were possible. When Garganta heard of the road that Siapo took, her world crumbled. “Puwede palang hindi i-cremate?” Garganta said.

Reasons for rejecting cremation varied from religious belief to sentimental narratives.

For Domingo, it was to keep the promise she made to her husband that he will never be cremated if he dies ahead of her. 

For Siapo, it was the yearning to be reunited with her son after death.

Marlyn Sison looks at the box containing the bones of Noel Sison, her husband who was killed by armed men in Bagong Barrio, Caloocan City in 2016, before its final resting place at a columbarium. [ITALS] Ciriaco Santiago
Marlyn Sison looks at the box containing the bones of Noel Sison, her husband who was killed by armed men in Bagong Barrio, Caloocan City in 2016, before its final resting place at a columbarium. Ciriaco Santiago

Sison’s wife Marlyn, meanwhile, could not stomach the idea that Noel, who already suffered a violent death, will have to endure a round of burning. 

Sison also longed to touch Noel again so she brought gloves on the day his bones were exhumed in Manila North Cemetery. “Asawa ko yan at gusto ko ako ang maglilinis sa kanya,” she said.

Sison was a former drug user who believed in Duterte's promise of change. He wore the red and blue campaign baller everywhere until the night armed men shot him dead. Marlyn buried him with the baller on. The bracelet, which was exhumed together with his remains, had been preserved.

Since 2016, most of these families had been deprived of a solemn wake and burial because of lack of privacy brought by extensive media coverage, and the never-ending worry on where to get money to cover burial costs. 

Along the way, they did not only lose family members, they also lost neighbors because of the stigma and fear that goes with the killings.

The defiance of Domingo and Siapo opened new doors for families who wish to have a final say on how to handle their loved ones’ bodies. The road was not easy but those who took this path enjoyed the chance to solemnly grieve the reinterment of their relatives’ remains.

They felt reunited with their loved ones again, too. Even if that meant embracing their skeleton or stroking their skulls as if they were finger combing their hair.For a brief moment, these families were able to reclaim the bodies that were violently taken away from them.

“Are you happy?” Domingo asked Marilyn while taking shade under one of La Loma’s trees. Their husbands were killed minutes apart.

“Yes, yes,” Marilyn answered. “Finally, my husband is in a better place.”

The rent on these vaults will expire after five years.