December 2012

Bobby Jimenez was raised among the graves in Manila’s North Cemetery, so it’s no surprise that the 43-year-old treats funerals – and the human skulls and other bones that are scattered around the area in which his children play – as simply things to pass by, barely acknowledge or even make a bit of money from.

For an estimated 6,000 people, this vast cemetery is home, and the dead are both their neighbours and a source of employment. ‘I look after graves,’ Jimenez explains on a Sunday morning in early April. Nearby, one of his young daughters sits cooking fish on a small charcoal fire in front of their cramped wooden home, built atop hundreds of stacked graves against the back wall of the 54-hectare cemetery.

The raised position of Jimenez’s home allows the careworn Filipino father of six to look out across thousands of graves and see the dozens of funeral processions that come by daily, each trailed with mourners and each with a group of individuals who will come and go within a few hours, leaving the cemetery’s residents to get on with their basic, everyday existences.

‘Twenty families each pay me about 50 pesos [74 pence] a month to look after their dead relatives,’ he continues. ‘There are a lot of robbers stealing the bones or the ornaments off tombs, so someone needs to make sure they’re safe. I also make sure the flowers they leave aren’t stolen and resold.

‘It isn’t a lot of money, but we can live on it,’ he adds. ‘And it’s a lot safer than the alternative: living in one of the slums outside.’

Life and Death situation

Manila’s North Cemetery is the largest public cemetery in the crowded megacity of 12 million, and one of the most illustrious: the final resting place of ex-presidents and their families, wealthy businessmen and -women, and even a few successful gangsters.

Yet for decades, it has also developed its own living economy, mostly undisturbed by the municipal government, as residents moved in to live and find work among the dead. Stone and marble sarcophaguses in mausoleums became beds, while the mausoleums themselves became small shops, bars, karaoke parlours and other businesses as people looked for ways to earn a living from the procession of the dead.

Most of those who live in the cemetery are on the lowest rungs of society in a country that has long struggled with high levels of poverty. ‘[In Manila], 104,000 families live in danger areas – along creeks and in garbage dumps, industrial areas and cemeteries,’ says Marife Ballesteros, a senior research fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. ‘For those living in these areas, unemployment is high – in some areas almost half of individuals aged between 15 and 60 years of age are unemployed.’

Inner City sanctuary

But living in a cemetery has its benefits. Few residents pay rent – they live in mausoleums with the permission of the owner in exchange for keeping them clean and guarded. Many then earn extra money looking after the nearby tombstones of less wealthy families.

‘I look after more than 100 tombs, mostly those of children,’ says Baby Fernandez, a sweet-natured 57-year-old widow who lives among a warren of mausoleums near one of the main dusty streets in the cemetery. (The North Cemetery is so large that it has main thoroughfares and street signs.) ‘Part of my job is to pray over the graves.’

Inside the simply constructed, three-metre-square mausoleum she calls home, the bedding is carefully rolled up on top of the marble sarcophagus that acts as her bed, while her personal possessions are scattered around the small, ill-lit room. She has a fan for hot nights, despite the cold stone structure, and a few creature comforts, including a small television.

Most of her relatives live outside the cemetery, although one young granddaughter sits shyly eating rice and vegetables beside her as she talks. ‘I’ve lived here for more than 32 years. It’s peaceful here, safer and better,’ she says with a tranquil smile on her face. ‘Outside it isn’t safe, and there is pollution and noise.’

One of her daughters, who died in childbirth at the age of 28, is buried less than five metres away, her ‘loving husband’ just around the corner. She likes to be close to them.

The Philippines is a Christian country – more than 85 per cent of the population is Catholic – but few in the cemetery can afford to be superstitious or picky about living among the dead. They know that the alternative is a life outside the high cemetery walls in one of Manila’s numerous slums, where crime, prostitution and drugs are rife.

Less than a kilometre from the cemetery gates, hundreds live in a shantytown crammed under a metal bridge and flush against a railway line. Children play out on the tracks, and dozens of people, young and old, are killed or maimed every year by passing trains.

Violence and crime are rife. Unemployment is endemic and houses have been constructed out of rusty corrugated iron and any other cheap or easy-to-find materials. They look temporary, but the reality is that the people here, just like those in the cemetery, have little or no opportunity to leave and better their lives.

Circle of life

Inside the North Cemetery, whole families are born, live and die. Pregnant women leave to give birth at the Chinese General Hospital, which backs onto the cemetery, returning a few days later (a gate directly connects the hospital to the cemetery for those who don’t make it). Children attend schools located just outside the cemetery walls, but most fail to graduate. Most residents will be buried in the cemetery in which they’ve lived for most or all of their lives.

‘When I die, I will be buried near where I live, maybe in sight of my bed,’ says 84-year-old Marcelina Laja Lobles, who has lived in the cemetery since 1951. The fact appears to give her great happiness.

Rather than being a morbid place, the North Cemetery mimics much of the Philippines in being outwardly happy. Young children play basketball between the graves, while groups of adults laugh and play cards in the shade, using the flat surfaces of tombstones as both their tables and chairs. Death is all around, but the people don’t seem to notice. Skulls lie strewn on the ground as chickens peck at the dirt around them. Long funeral processions appear and disappear. The wailing of mourners can be heard from near and far.

In a cramped, two-person mausoleum that now serves as a family shop, 15-year-old Mark Andrew sits watching the local equivalent of Pop Idol on
a small television perched on a shelf above the unadorned sacophagi. ‘I was born in this cemetery,’ he says, a bored look on his face and a tattoo of a treble clef visible on his neck.

In the dark, tightly packed mausoleum, Andrew sits between a large, white, soft-drink-filled fridge and shelves stacked with cigarettes and glasses. Blankets have been placed over the stone caskets for anyone who wants to sit inside. ‘My grandmother moved into this mausoleum before us,’ he explains. ‘When she moved in, the graves weren’t maintained – no-one was looking after them or visiting. tomb robbers broke in one night and stole the copper and ornaments off the graves, along with the nameplates. She stopped feeling safe here, so we took it over.’

Andrew attends a local high school outside the walls – there are no schools within the cemetery itself, nor any police or medical presence – but otherwise he spends his time among the graves, playing basketball with friends or working in the family shop. It’s the only life he has ever known.

Bad reputation

With little police interference in the area, the cemetery has long been the refuge of criminals and those hiding from the law. ‘Areas of the cemetery aren’t safe,’ Jimenez says. ‘By the far east wall there are lots of criminals: stick-up artists, people doing drugs – not nice people. I tell my children to stay away from there.’

In the lead-up to last year’s All Saints Day, when Catholics traditionally flock to cemeteries to pay their respects to the deceased, Manila’s mayor asked those visiting the North Cemetery to be wary of petty criminals. ‘Keep your valuables close and avoid wearing expensive jewellery,’ he said.

The North Cemetery’s reputation – as well as that of the people who live in it – has been further eroded by the activities of some of the younger residents, who increasingly demand money from grieving families to carry their loved ones’ coffins. ‘If people don’t pay them, they will damage the tombs or tip over the coffin,’ Rolund Antiola, a hearse driver in his mid-30s, tells me as he stands under the shade of a tree watching as the man he has just brought to the cemetery is buried.

Scattered around the edges of the large, smartly dressed crowd of mourners, dishevelled young men can be seen squatting atop tombs, smoking cigarettes and clearly waiting for their tips, expected to be around 300 pesos each.

While few of the older residents condone the behaviour, they accept its inevitability, given the limited opportunities. ‘this place hasn’t changed at all in the 43 years I’ve been here,’ says Jimenez. ‘We have the same lives, the same work opportunities.’

Some young residents earn money making plaques for the graves or helping to seal the tombs with cement after the body is interred; others make do with occasional part-time work outside the walls. ‘I wash clothes, and sometimes work at a restaurant as a waiter or cleaner,’ 35-year-old Rashdi Lobles tells me as he walks down a dusty path to see his elderly grandmother, barely acknowledging the group of wailing mourners passionately reading the sacraments over their loved-one’s tomb.

Lobles moved back to the cemetery with his mother when he was 13 and has struggled for work and purpose most of his life. ‘Sometimes you do bad things in this world. Sometimes I drink – it is a bad thing. I try to be a better person,’ he says, slurring his words after coming from a bar in one of the cemetery’s seedier areas.

Staying power

Jimenez stands on the platform outside his house and looks out over the endless rows of tombs towards a stained and decrepit church dome in the distance. ‘We do occasionally go outside the walls to walk the streets, but mostly we stay inside,’ he says.

Jimenez knows that a cemetery isn’t the ideal place to live or raise a family, but he worries about the life his children would have if they moved away. ‘The cemetery authorities know me,’ he says, implying that he and his family aren’t hassled.

Every year, however, there’s talk in the press or in parliament of moving North Cemetery’s residents on; of returning the place to its original intended purpose only. But lifelong residents such as Jimenez realised long ago that the threat isn’t worth worrying about. ‘Every election politicians come inside to try to get our votes – they offer us money to vote for them,’ he says. ‘They want our votes, so they leave this place alone.’

Images by Jeffrey Lau