Her leadership saw the company handling 5,000 funeral services per year to 10,000 a month.

"I believe we're part of changing the mindset about death care. Instead of being so sad, we try to make it a lighter experience."

SYMPATHY is a common word in occasions of death. Where we, especially family and close friends, commiserate with bereaved families, regardless of cause of death.

Mildred Vande V. Vitangcol, M.D.
Chairman of the Board
St. Peter Life Plan Inc.
Mildred Vande V. Vitangcol, M.D. Chairman of the Board St. Peter Life Plan Inc.
For death care specialists, funerals are traditionally somber and melancholy. After all, losing a loved one is a painful and stressful experience for those left behind. Death is perceived as something to be dreaded, with grief coming from both the loss of a life and the cost entailed to have a decent burial.

That is until St. Peter Life Plan Inc. redefined funerals as service with compassion. And it's more than an innovative marketing strategy that caught the fancy of Filipinos. It provides compassion for the lost loved one, giving him or her a dignified send-off, and the loved ones left behind to cherish the beautiful memory beyond sympathy.

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Dr. Mildred Vande Vitangcol, as chairman of the board for St. Peter Life Plan, was head of the strategic team that changed the face of death care and putting the "lighter but still essential side" in funerals. "In the business side of things, perception is very important, especially if you aim to capture the trust of the public and also promote the brand name. We were successful in promoting the company through first-in-the-industry products and activities that captured the public's interest," she said.

They put out pink caskets and came out with campaigns with the ultimate tagline "You Only Die Once" (YODO) as aligned to YOLO (You Only Live Once). This is to show that while mourning on a loved one's death is normal, it should also be a celebration of a life that was on earth and moving forward to another dimension.

Mildred Vande Vitangcol (seated) administers polio vaccine to a child in Calawis, Antipolo. Standing from left are Marvelous Imaginative (MI) President Dennis Belmonte of the Rotary Club (RC) Makati Salcedo; MI President Nikki Gilladoga of the RC Makati San Lorenzo; and Chacha Camacho, past district governor of RC Makati San Lorenzo; and the child’s mother.
Mildred Vande Vitangcol (seated) administers polio vaccine to a child in Calawis, Antipolo. Standing from left are Marvelous Imaginative (MI) President Dennis Belmonte of the Rotary Club (RC) Makati Salcedo; MI President Nikki Gilladoga of the RC Makati San Lorenzo; and Chacha Camacho, past district governor of RC Makati San Lorenzo; and the child’s mother.

Hence, planning for a funeral like any other life event is equally important if you want your guests to experience a memorable moment with you, however solemn it may be.

From sadness to smiles

"We focused on changing the mindset about dealing with death. Instead of focusing on only grieving, we try to make it a lighter, truly memorable experience," Vitangcol said. Part of the company's services is creating tributes for the families, with death care specialists taking on the role of funeral planners in the same way weddings also have planners. "We create tribute videos for them, so together they may celebrate memories of the life that just passed; of the loved one who left behind the family."

Earlier in St. Peter's transformation, Vitangcol, a doctor by profession, found the atmosphere and ambience of funeral homes quite dark and gloomy. Hence, the company put up chapels that are well lit and painted in comfortable earth tones. "We made sure our chapels have a bright and standard uplifting façade and interiors nationwide. Pretty much like fast-food chains and banks having their own consistent design aesthetic," she said.

To complement these changes, everyone in the company committed to serving excellently. "We take care of everything for the family to the point that all the family has to do is focus on the best memories of the departed," Vitangcol said.

"Our best advertising is done at the front lines. When funeral wake visitors see how our specialists take care of bereaved families' needs, they are encouraged to get a plan from us. They need not sell anymore as clients approach them directly. This was St. Peter's thrust, 'Serve excellently, and selling plans will not be difficult for our agents'."

Vitangcol with her husband York
Vitangcol with her husband York

Vitangcol also instilled a customer-centric approach in the company culture when she came on board in 2007. "Before, it took months for checks for insurance claims to be released. We remade the policy so it can be released right away. We think of their needs and put them first. We take pride whenever these families give testimonials about their service experience," Vitangcol added. And they were blessed from this customer focus. From 5,000 funerals served a year in the late 1990s, they are now doing almost 10,000 funerals a month. This bodes well for their agents, who she says enjoy one of the highest sales incentives in the industry.

A heart for service

Vitangcol went from saving lives to taking care of the afterlife. She is a medical doctor by profession, inspired by her mother Remedios, who worked as a midwife in their quiet town of Siaton in Negros Oriental. She would sometimes accompany her mother to visit patients' homes in the middle of the night to assist in giving birth or to the barangay health center to perform checkups.

Vitangcol, who was always at the top of her class, knew she wanted to be a doctor even from a young age. "I wanted to be of service, but I wanted to be calling the shots. As a child, it stuck in my mind how my mother, as a midwife, was always being told what to do. As a doctor, there is a leadership role inherent in it."

"And whether you're a doctor, a midwife or a nurse, the work is all the same. You really have to roll up your sleeves to serve. The title of doctor may be glamorous but the level of service is the same. By being a doctor, though, you can lead a team," she added.

Her father Frederick was an American marine biologist who was interested in farming and ecology, and brought exchange students to the Silliman University in Dumaguete. "He and his friends from the Peace Corps would do regular community work in our barangay (village)," sherecalled. From her parents, Vitangcol learned the values of compassion and generosity, of loving service for others.

It was at Silliman where she finished her undergraduate studies in biology, after which she took up medicine at the Cebu Doctors College of Medicine. It was in Manila where she met her husband, York, at a gym where they both worked out. She was already a medical intern at the time she got married and was a full-fledged gastroenterologist with a private practice by the time she joined St. Peter, which was founded by her husband's grandfather.

She got invited to be the company physician, then helped in the claims department before getting involved in the marketing department. "I saw the potential of the business. In my mind, I knew it was a sleeping giant." She took up Masters in Hospital Administration program at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business and Strategic Business Economics at the University of Asia and the Pacific, putting her learning to good use with her early entrepreneurship skills honed from selling school-made Nutribun, and her neighbor's ice candy and tira-tira or muscovado candies to classmates.

Through hard work and determination, her vision to make St. Peter a household name came true. They became number one in the pre-need industry, a position they still maintain to this day, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Asked how she is able to make two ends of the spectrum meet — preserving life as a physician and as a professional dealing with death care, she answered, "In both cases, it is about healing. As a doctor, you are healing the sick. And with St. Peter, we are helping grieving families with a deeper kind of healing, that is, making it a very memorable parting between loved ones. This was important, especially with Covid-19, as there were people who passed away in the intensive care unit, not being accessed by loved once anymore due to strict IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) protocols for burials of Covid patients."

Giving back

She is now giving back through her personal advocacies, particularly in her role as district governor of Rotary International (RI) District 3830 for 2022-2023. "It resonates with the values I grew up [with], and serving others fulfills my commitment to give back. In Rotary, I get truly inspired by its dedicated members who provide service to others, promote integrity, goodwill and peace, among many others. Everyone in Rotary serves above self."

The following are under the RI areas of focus: promote peace; fight disease; provide clean water, sanitation and hygiene; save mothers and children; support education; grow local economies; and protect the environment. Vitangcol thrives in going on Rotary missions and outreaches to address these seven areas. Through that, she knows she can make a difference in the lives of others.

When not busy with her career and with her Rotary work, she enjoys catching up with her husband over good food and wine. Her children Karol Lolek, Mykl Angelo and Julia Ysabela are all grown and are pursuing their respective dreams abroad. "Thank God for video calls," Vitangcol amusingly quipped.

For those who are starting their careers and businesses, her advice is: "Nothing beats hard work and building trust. Be sincere with the relationships you build, and be generous with your time, talent and treasure. And as you receive the blessings for your effort, be a blessing to others."

The company's foundation in life principle is service with compassion, and this is shared by Vitangcol's loving spouse York, the chief executive officer of St. Peter, and has been cascaded to their children, members of their families, the St. Peter group family. And finally, largely to the communities they serve with great love for humanity.

Vitangcol has definitely shown that compassion transcends everything in life into a joyful journey of giving.