The cemeteries in Metro Manila (Philippines) are often home to not only the dead but also to the living.

Eternal Wake – dead end in Manila’s North Cemetery

We all here have a single goal in common, we want to live outside!

Unlike rural poverty, urban poverty is highly complex and multidimensional, extending beyond the deficiency of earnings. Along with a fast-rising population, the Philippines’ megalopolises are facing a steady influx of people out-migrating from the Barangays in the countryside, causing a tremendous housing shortage and squattering of public places. Thus the urban poor usually scouts for a refuge anywhere there is space: along streets, in parks, under road overpasses, and most bizarrely – in the graveyards. As a result, the cemeteries in Metro Manila are often home to not only the dead but also to the living.

Since the late 50s, the living population within the 54 acres of Manila’s North Cemetery started to flourish with several generations hit by poverty moving into their family crypts and sleeping alongside the deceased remains of their loved ones. Today, the avenues of the 115 years old cemetery are bustling with activities of any ordinary neighborhood. Some early risers prepare the Filipino national dish Adobo, whilst the roosters and strays start wandering at large. Those without a job outside the fencing will spend their time playing cards, basketball and video games at a 1m2 pop-up game center, or they just linger about dreaming of a brighter future. However, there is also creativity in the air – literally. „Norte native“ Kambal Cabaña has learned the art of racing pigeon breeding within his family’s plot. Now the birdy business isn’t running that bad for him explains the 26-years-old, if one of his pigeons makes him a winner, he might pocket 100’000 Philippine Pesos in only one race.

Rumor has it that the government strives to relocate the 6000-odd informal settlers from the Cementerio del Norte which have established their lifes among the dead long time ago. „But this gossip circulates for quite a while, and it sparks afresh when new elections are coming up“, reveals Edwin Orcocoy who is occupying a family’s grave since 19 years. „That is where I and my wife Evelyn sleep when it is raining“, he highlights nonchalantly, pointing on a pair of granite tombs which are sheltered only by a thin curtain-like fabric. Edwin had been working in Jeddah on the Red Sea’s coats as an OFW (Overseas Filippino Workers), when the 3-years contract ended, he returned to Manila where he got a job as a tricycle driver until an accident ended his short career abruptly, turning the escape from the eternal wake at North Cemetery into a long-term project. As he is bad on foot ever since and social welfare is basically non-existing, Evelyn is now taking care of their livelihood by selling some pre-cut veggies for 30 PHP a portion at the Blumentritt market. „It’s hardly enough, but at least we don’t have to pay rent.“ This advantage is certainly the key reason for the impoverished families to consider the makeshift quarters between tombstones and ancient crypts a real home.

Many grave dwellers have been born here or came to this extraordinary Barangay as naive toddlers to eventually become grandparents in the burial sites over the years. Taking Maria Elena, the 45 years old lady joined the graveyard life when she was little and gave already birth to three cemetery originals. As „a very long and harsh time“, she recapitulates the past while caressing the newborn twins of her daughter Irene. „Young motherhood is common among the women in Filipino culture“, Maria Elena adds with a dry smile. Today, she shares the mausoleum with 7 other family members. Some cemetery fellows have evidently more space to call their own as they have built partly illegal another two or three additional stories on top of a family’s tomb. Like Mr. Bacelonia who has even installed an A/C plus two security cameras to protect his property from snatchers. Because there is no running water inside the cemetery, the outside living neighbors allow the community to fetch their water by charging a small fee. There might be no functioning sewage system, though almost all the improvised homes host a small TV set. With regard to the field studies of a local NGO only around 20% of the long term residents are paying for electricity officially (300 PHP per week), whereas a fair lot is sourcing power from a whatsoever dubious neighbor who is brave enough to justify illegal line tapping or bypassing the energy meter in case authorities would investigate.

„600 PHP for the 3 years contract“, announces 37-years-old Jerwin Z. Carreon to the mother who is handing him her stillbirth in a cardboard box. „Zasho“ and his 4 gravediggers colleagues are taking care of “section 196” – the cemetery’s part where roughly 3000 babies (and a couple of dogs) are buried. Once the contract is about to end, the families are required to renew it by paying an extension fee in person to the caretakers on November 1, All Saint’s Day – the holy day when Filipino families return to worship the deceased. “If they don’t pay, the mortal remains will be exhumed to make room for newcomers. Sadly, many can’t afford the further payment”, divulges Zasho, whose family had to move to North Cemetery when they surrendered their property due to a fire in 1995.

The majority of the cemetery residents earn some income as caretakers, keeping the tombs tidy for their owners and protecting the graves from thieves which are after the burial gifts. But only a few are getting paid a pittance, a fact that doesn’t bother the settlers much, as they are given permission to stay in return. Right next to the mourners, across the pathway where Hobito sells ice cream out of his handcart, a birthday party has just started out. Margerie Antonio turns 24 today, and in order to celebrate this event in the typical Filipino way, her close friends and family have installed a karaoke machine in the center of several tombs. Margerie has spent all her birthdays in the cemetery, which is unmistakably a challenging place to call home – yet she doesn’t mind: „that’s how it is, we are poor but happy“.

„Most children here are facing an uncertain time ahead“, figures teacher Joharrah from the Kapatiran-Kaunlaran foundation which runs free morning preschool lessons for the three to six-year-olds. Kindergarten and elementary schools are free of charge in the Philippines, but the parents must buy school uniforms plus books and participate monetarily in project work. Regarding Kapatiran-Kaunlaran’s survey, these additional expenses seem to be the reason why only half of all the kids dwelling here at Manila North Cemetery are joining classes (kinder/ elementary school) outside.

Given the fact that a third of the country’s population depends on one Dollar or less per day, there is a huge amount of street smarts having no golden opportunities, but hope. „We all here have a single goal in common, we want to live outside!“ describes second-time mom Catherine the apparent dead end in Manila’s North Cemetery. If her family will ever make the dream come true remains unclear, as her husband Richard, earns only sufficient money for their day-to-day survival from his job as a jeepney driver. Sadly, the government has just announced the phaseout of the iconic Filipino public transport within the upcoming years to decongest the traffic-choked streets.


Videography / Documentary

Join me for a brief virtual stroll through Manila’s North Cemetery alias “Norte”!

The 6 protagonists I’d been scouting for are all in a high degree “Filipino”, thus their stories are drawn from typical Pinoy traditions or divine devotion. By watching this 45 minutes documentary you’ll learn about their dreams and fears and what a cemetery life is all about.

Kambal breeds and races pigeons inside “Norte”, and he does it well. Learn how the birds are being nursed, and how many Filipinos like Kambal make a living out of pigeon racing.

Christian learned that he is gay with 5 years of age. He is a “Norte-Native”, born and raised in the cemetery. In contrast to the Western world, transsexuality is widely spread in the Philippines. Christian expresses his feelings without hesitation and hopes that one day, he will bust out of the cemetery together with his family.

Jerwin Z. Carreon alias “Zasho” and his 4 gravediggers colleagues are taking care of “section 196” – the cemetery’s part where roughly 3000 babies (and a couple of dogs) are buried. Learn more about death in the Philippines, and how the caretakers make a living out of it.

Edwin is a former OFW – Overseas Filipino Worker. A destiny he shared with approx. 10 million other countrymen which endure hardship abroad for money’s sake. The diaspora are called bagong bayani (the new heroes) for sacrificing themselves for the betterment of their families and the country. Now, Edwin is back, living among the dead with hopes to break away once again.

Many families can’t afford sending their kids to school. Joharra teaches inside the Manila North Cemetery. The youth is facing an uncertain future, but Joharra gives her very best to improve the situation and make the childrens’ dreams come true, at least for some. This short vid also shows how the children spend their time in “Norte”.

As the country is moving towards modernity fast and furious, some of its partisans are cruising on the verge of existence. The beloved Jeepney is about to drive forever from the map, causing either massive displacement or unemployment of experienced drivers plus higher fares for the sheer number of commuters. Richard escapes the cemetery life with his privately owned Jeepney during daytime and explains what a phaseout would mean to him.


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