Philippines cemetery provides Manila’s poor a place to live among the dead

Thousands of families have made city graveyard their home as authorities grapple with rising population and housing shortage

A child walks on a makeshift bridge between shanty homes built on top of banks of tombs inside the north Manila cemetery. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Every morning, Alberto Lagarda Evangelista, 71, leaves the two-storey, lemon-yellow home he has lived in for the past decade and walks to work at the cemetery next door. As a caretaker of about 20 graves, Evangelista earns just 20,000 pesos (£315) a year, a sum so small that he must share his house with seven other people – all of whom are dead.

Evangelista lives and works in the Cementerio del Norte, a sprawling, 54-hectare green space in north Manila that is also home to some 1,000 other families. Here in the Philippines‘ largest public graveyard, century-old tombs have been converted into stalls selling sachets of shampoo and instant noodles, clothes lines are strung between crosses and car batteries power radios, karaoke machines and television sets. Evangelista’s home is a mausoleum housing eight graves. The breezy second storey where the owners pay their annual respects to the dead doubles as his bedroom. “Just look at my view,” he says, pointing his cigarette out towards the grave-studded horizon.

Today, the shady lanes are busy with the sundry activities of any normal neighbourhood: a group of boys plays basketball; adults while away the afternoon heat with sodas and playing cards; couples canoodle atop the graves that double as their beds; and women prepare chicken adobo in their mausoleum cafes.

The cemetery’s inhabitants rank among the poorest of the poor in Manila, a capital where roughly 43% of the city’s 13 million residents live in informal settlements like this one, according to a 2011 Asian Development Bank report. This Roman Catholic country has one of Asia’s fastest growing populations and a massive housing shortage – meaning that the urban poor must usually find, build or cobble together housing anywhere there is space: under bridges, along highways, in alleys, perched atop flood channels, or even among the dead.

No one knows exactly when the cemetery became a living village. But many of Manila North’s 6,000-odd residents were born here and expect to spend their whole lives here. Gravedigger Steve Esbacos, 52, a muscular man with blue-rimmed eyes, was born and raised in the same mausoleum where he now raises his own four children. “Sometimes I don’t like living here, because it’s dirty and it smells bad,” he says, before admitting that he’s never wanted to live anywhere else. “My father is buried just over there and I don’t know where else I’d go.”

Ramil and Josephine Raviz run a stall selling instant noodles and peanuts to residents and mourners. They earn enough money to send their 10-year-old daughter to school, and say they prefer life here to the possibilities “outside” the cemetery’s four walls.

“When I first came to Norte 30 years ago, there weren’t so many families here – it was quiet and peaceful and safe, very different to the outside slums in Manila,” says Ramil, 46, in his mausoleum housing a fan, fridge, rocking chair, microwave, blankets and mattresses, and six graves. “But once people realised they could work here and live here for free, they moved in.”

The cemetery hasn’t retained that peaceful aura. Robberies and muggings are common, residents admit, with gangs said to be working different corners of the sprawling greenery.

 

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Literally the living among the dead

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