PHOTOS AND TEXT BY BAHAG
10,000 Filipino families live in this massive graveyard in Manila. I recently spent five days walking among its residents taking photos and hearing stories of struggle and survival.
Some families ended up here almost accidentally. Some inherited the mausoleums that they now live in from their great-grandparents. Others came from the provinces and couldn’t make enough money to live in the big city. In all cases, they’re basically families with nowhere else to go.
The people who live here manage to extract livelihoods from the dead. Teenagers carry coffins for 50 Filipino pesos—about 50 American cents. Children collect scrap metal, plastic, and other garbage to sell. Their fathers are employed to repair and maintain tombs while their mothers maintain the house, which could be the family mausoleum or the mausoleum of their employers. Rent-free shanties are wedged between or on top of crypts.
Unlike many of my countrymen, I don’t see these folks as the destitute bottom-rung of society. I see them as living embodiments of the raw spirit of the Filipino people, a nation so tough it can and has survived under any sort of hardship.
Unidentified bones found around the Manila North Cemetery. Some families default on the leases on their tombs and the administration has no choice but to remove the bones.
Emmarie Bernardino is a 57-year-old dressmaker. Due to financial hardship, her family chose to sell their house and live inside their mausoleum. Imelda Domingo owns a small food store inside the cemetery. She is also a part-time mausoleum caretaker.
This is Jenelyn Guiwanon,19, with her 1-year-old daughter. She works for her mother-in-law (top right) taking care of the cemetery’s mini grocery store. Carolina S. Ameglio is a 67-year-old caretaker. She lives in the mausoleum where her husband is buried.
A typical small mausoleum home inside the Manila North Cemetery. Here a mother stays at home watching TV with her children.
A vacant mausoleum can be a place for relaxation or entertainment. Residents in this area can come to this one and drop five pesos to sing karaoke.
A Filipino custom says that children must carry coffins. It is thought that this will keep the children safe from any ghost or vengeful spirit.
Ricky Bernardino is a 39-year-old manicurist/beautician who lives and works in the cemetery. Rolan Flores, 18, lives with his wife and daughter. His job is to clean and repair the tombs, and, for extra cash, he combs the area for plastics and metals to sell for five pesos a pound.
Maria Wico is a 56-year-old caretaker. She moved to the cemetery when she was 17. Florielyn Flores, an 18-year-old mother and wife of Rolan (above), poses with her 2-year-old son in front of their home.
Sheryl Ann M. Muros volunteers as a schoolteacher. The classes are held inside the veterans’ mausoleum. Catherine de Ocampo is a 17-year-old housewife. She moved to the cemetery last year.
Playing cards or bingo on top of tombs is a favorite pastime.