By Joseph L. Garcia

“Death alone can make others respect our sufferings; and through death the most pitiable sufferings acquire dignity,” said Thomas Mann in his novel, the German classic Buddenbrooks. But there is no dignity in a cadaver; instead, what we have are our memories of the departed, and how we seek to honor them. Hence, a funeral.

For millenia — dating to the Neanderthals, even — human beings have held special rituals for the dead. The Egyptians were famous for their elaborate mummification processes, and offerings for the death were made to sustain them in the next life. The Greeks and the Romans were known as well for their elaborate funeral practices, as illustrated in various works in Greek mythology, as well as even a cursory look at Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. No death culture had been more pervasive than that of the Victorians, however: in an era named after a woman who was in perpetual mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, the rules of mourning were very strict during the era: widows, especially, were ordered by social convention to be in heavy, all-black mourning attire for at least a year, and as the death of the loved one grew more distant, softer colors like pale purple and gray could be reintroduced to the widow’s wardrobe.

In the Philippines, heavily influenced by European and Chinese cultures, as well as fiercely held local beliefs, the funeral takes on familiar turns. Unless you’re at a Chinese funeral where you’re encouraged to wear white, one wears black, unless requested by the bereaved. An overwhelming smell of white flowers, arranged in wreaths, envelops the funeral parlor, and two (usually electric) candelabra flank a coffin, while ribbons with the name of the person’s family are pinned to the silk lining of the coffin’s lid.

A company called Comfortscapes, started by three sisters — Tina Bonoan, Mari Bonoan Escano, and Mailet Bonoan Ancheta — seeks to remove the cliches, and bring the person’s memories closer to the mourners by way of personalized funeral styling.

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Two of the sisters, Mrs. Escano and Mrs. Ancheta, both identify as entrepreneurs, while Tina is an architect and interior designer. The trio struck upon the idea when their parents died, their father in 2012, and their mother in 2014. Ms. Ancheta spoke to BusinessWorld, describing how the sisters, mostly with the efforts of Ms. Bonoan and her friends, dressed up their mother’s wake. “She loved the color purple,” said Ms. Ancheta of her mother. A photo of the wake shows their mother’s portrait hung on a carved glass screen, and a pair of stately candelabra with candles — real ones — burning on them. A green wall was hung with a cross, and candles hung from this green wall, while a perfect proliferation of purple orchids was set up by their mother’s portrait. That, we have to say, is going away in style.

From this painful loss, friends and family complimented them on this small triumph in the inevitability of death, and the siblings decided to start a business in 2015. Today, aside from elaborate wake arrangements, the company also offers very stylish funeral urns, by some of the most famous names in the art world: how would you like to spend eternity in a stylish urn with Japanese motifs, or in a stainless steel urn designed by no less than Impy Pilapil?

The goal for the sisters is, “When you see the setup, it will remind you of the person. For my mom, my sisters said it was… understated elegance,” said Mrs. Ancheta. She described their latest client’s funeral, an affair of green and white; a tribute by nieces to a beloved uncle. “They didn’t really specify anything,” she said, when asked about the significance of the colors. “They just wanted it to feel light.”

“We wanted a send-off… to make it feel as comfortable as possible — although it’s never really comfortable for anybody to send someone off, right? We try to make the vibe as comfortable and as light as possible.”

While the event styling of the sisters veers towards the organic, touched with native influences (the sisters insist on using locally produced products, such as capiz lamps and such), they may also try something else should a request come up. Their accessories are usually custom-made, and surprisingly, “The others, we just got from our house.” Suppose one wanted to die a la Gatsby, with the pompous recklessness of the 1920s? “Could be!” said Ms. Ancheta.

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In our highly personalized age, where even our dinners are styled to make a good photo for our Instagram feeds, one supposes that a person can approach the sisters and help plan his or her own funeral. A morbid prospect, but it’s a brave one. Said Ms. Ancheta, “Pwede rin (It’s possible), but we haven’t encountered anything like that.”

Ms. Ancheta added, “Actually, that’s why we’re trying to tap the younger market, because they’re the more progressive ones.” No, this isn’t about cutting down youth in its beauty: “Normally, [it’s] their parents that they’re sending off.”

“More often than not, the senior citizens have their pre-planned things already with the memorial parks, right?”, she said, suggesting the styling as a sort of upgrade.

Funeral styling by the sisters, excluding coffin and urn, would cost, on average, P85,000. This would be on top of the other expenses from the funeral home, such as use of the funeral parlor and the coffin itself, which could range from about P266,500 to P2.132 million (as per Heritage Park’s web site).

Up to the end, apparently, it’s the Bonoan sisters’ mother still who guides them. Asking from where the sisters drew their talent and inspiration, Ms Ancheta noted that their mother “liked fixing up the house.”

“I guess that’s where we got our creative juices.”

Although we try to convince ourselves that death is but a biological certainty — an ending, and nothing more; in the moment that our lives are suddenly touched by it, we realize a person we loved has been lost in the most real sense of the word. When asked if decorating their parents’ wakes, in any way, helped them with their grieving process, Ms. Ancheta said, “Yes, of course. It’s probably our way of honoring them for the last time.”

“I guess, that’s your last goodbye, so we want to do it the best way you can. You want to give it your all, and show them.”