Hard life among the dead in Manila

12:19 AM June 27, 2017

By: Adam Dean, New York Times News Service

A man working on a headstone: A resident who does the same work calls it “the best job in the cemetery.” Photo by Adam Dean

A man working on a headstone: A resident who does the same work calls it “the best job in the cemetery.” Photo by Adam Dean

Manila North Cemetery, which opened in 1904, is one of the oldest and largest in the Philippines. Its elaborate mausoleums and endless rows of humble, stacked tombs are home to an estimated one million of the dead — and a few thousand of the living.


The final resting place of presidents, movie stars, and literary icons, the cemetery is also inhabited by some of Manila’s poorest people.

Many live in the crypts and mausoleums of wealthy families, who pay them a stipend to clean and watch over them.


Others find different ways to engage the economy of death and burial.

“There is really no work here inside the cemetery, so I taught myself how to do this in 2007,” Ferdinand Zapata, 39, said as he chiseled the name of a dead man into an ornate marble headstone.

“This is the best job in the cemetery because you don’t have a boss,” said Zapata, who grew up in the cemetery and has raised two children here.

“The masons who make the niches and mausoleums can earn more, though,” he added.

‘Informal settlers’

As many as a quarter of Manila’s 12 million people are “informal settlers.”

Those in the cemetery prefer its relative quiet and safety to the city’s dangerous shantytowns.


The resourcefulness needed to live a life of such insecurity is on full display here.

In mausoleums, and in makeshift structures built over tombs, families go about their days. They chat, play cards and watch soap operas on TVs mounted near headstones or ornamental crosses.

“Sometimes it’s difficult living here,” said Jane de Asis, 26, who lives in a classically designed mausoleum with a son, two sisters, her sisters’ children and her mother, who is paid to take care of it.

“We don’t always have electricity and have no running water. It’s especially hard in the summer, when it’s so hot,” she added.

At night, people sleep on the tombs.

The thought of that may be jarring, but for the residents it is a practical choice.

Porous border

And many in this devoutly religious country see the boundary between the living and the dead as porous.

Isidro Gonzalez, 74, likes to talk to his mother, he said as he sat with his back to her tomb, working on a crossword puzzle.

“Maybe she can answer me, but so far, she has not!” he said.

Electricity in these converted homes is jury-rigged, and most residents don’t have running water.

At the few public wells, people line up with carts loaded with empty water bottles, waiting to fill them up.

Amid all of this, the normal business of a cemetery goes on. On a busy day there can be as many as 80 funerals.

Some cemetery residents, like the 54-year-old man who calls himself Father Ramona, are paid by visiting families to lead prayers at a grave.

Father Ramona sometimes wears a T-shirt bearing the face of Jesus.


The cemetery is so dense with tombs and crypts that a hearse often can’t reach its destination.

Mourners must then carry the coffin the rest of the way, clambering over other tombs and through passageways between mausoleums.

Glen Baleña, 26, was interred on a Sunday, which is always a busy day.

Baleña died of a brain infection, his relatives said.

Tombs are generally rented for five years. After that, if the relatives stop paying, the cemetery administrators will exhume the remains, after a grace period.

Discarded bags of skulls and bones, some tangled in the threads of the clothes they were buried in, are a common sight.

People leave offerings of snacks, drinks and sometimes cigarettes at their relatives’ gravesides.

Illegal drugs

Family members can often be seen there, saying prayers, lighting candles or just chatting.

On a recent morning, the acrid smell of burning crystal meth, or “shabu,” as Filipinos call it, wafted through a remote corner of the cemetery.

It led to a middle-aged woman smoking the drug from a piece of foil, as her daughter held a newborn.

Teenage boys nearby slept off their highs on tombstones or in hammocks.

Residents say drug use and crime have been on the rise in recent years.

Zapata, the headstone carver, dated it to roughly 2000, when slum clearance nearby led to a wave of new residents.

President Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drug dealers and addicts has also been felt at Manila North Cemetery.

In September last year, three men were killed here in what the police called an antidrug sting operation; the trio were said to have been trying to sell P500 worth of shabu.

Not safe after dark

Virginia Javier, 90, said residents now locked the gates to their tombs, which wasn’t the case several years ago.

“Since Mr. Duterte became President, every time there is a police raid here I go home to my children, usually,” Javier said as she tended potted plants outside one of the 10 mausoleums she is paid to take care of.

As dusk fell, many people advised an interpreter and me to leave, saying it wasn’t safe to be walking around after dark.

During the day, new homes are built from modest tombs, as workers add makeshift concrete walls and roofs of corrugated iron, often scavenged from somewhere else.

The dead are a constant presence here, in one way or another.

“When there are moments that I hear noises or voices, I just keep quiet, and I know it is the voices of the dead,” Javier said.

Her husband, Felix, said ghosts were “just something you see in the movies.”

Children of the cemetery

The cemetery’s many children, playing happily among the tombs, seem unconcerned about ghosts.

Here and there are makeshift stores, selling snacks and basic necessities like soap.

They also sell candles, for visitors who want to pay their respects at the grave of a loved one.

Some of the stalls have karaoke machines, which are popular in the evenings.

As the heat of the day dies away, boys and young men play basketball on improvised courts, or a version of billiards that’s popular in the slums of the Philippines.

Night often finds Gonzalez, the 74-year-old who was working on a crossword in his family crypt, sleeping there.

But he is not a resident—he owns a condominium in Manila.

His neighborhood, though, is more dangerous than the cemetery.

As he put it, “The dead can’t harm you.”

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TAGS: cemetery dwellers, Manila North Cemetery
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