A while back, I saw a documentary about people living in the south cemetery in Manila, many of them working for the cemetery but staying in between the tombs over night.
I've always found the influence of different circumstances in different places on design fascinating. How do we react on what is given and how does our culture influence the result?
So... how do people live in a cemetery?
Obviously I had to go on see it for myself.
Unfortunately, my online research revealed that it wasn't safe there and that I probably wouldn't get in anyways as they don't like non-Filipinos visiting. So I was very happy when I met Jess, a girl from Australia over breakfast at my hostel in Makati, who had seen the same documentary and also wanted to go.
Together we decided to do our best “walking past as if we belong there” and just try to get in like in a fancy nightclub where we were not on the list.
Half an our later, our taxi driver dropped us of at the massive gates to the Manila South Cemetery.
There was a little hut with several guards right behind it.
“Lets just go straight through it, ok?” Jess whispered.
A minute later, we had simply walked by all the guards and were standing in a pretty normal cemetery. We could see from there, that this one was huge, with streets going through it and even Jeepneys and tricycles stopping there.
Due to the lack of space, on this cemetery the graves are stacked on top of each other, with only the bottom one being actually buried in the ground. This was the most colourful cemetery I had ever seen, with painted grave stones, all in different shapes and colours.
The wealthier families built entire mausoleums, some of them were pretty impressive and basically looked like small houses.
We stopped at a small store and bought cookies. “Is it wrong to eat on a cemetery?” I asked Jess.
“Why would they sell cookies if it wasn't ok?” - true.
A minute later we met a family sitting in front of a tomb, cooking and eating together. I just wanted to pet their puppy, when they invited us to have lunch with them and sit down together. Just like in the rest of the Philippines, we felt like we were part of the family right away. The kids asked us in fluent English where we came from and what we were doing in the Philippines, while Jess shared some chicken feet with one of the boys (I declined as friendly as possible).
When I took a picture of the puppy, they asked me if I could send it to them. I was afraid to ask for their eMail address because I assumed they didn't have one. So I asked for a contact. Ellianbriel, the mom, looked at me: “contact? We live in the cemetery, we don't have an address”, I was embarrassed about my stupid question. She then added “but do you want to be my facebook friend?”. She typed my name into her brand new smart phone, two of the kids running into the house to get theirs as well.
After friending everybody on facebook and finishing the chicken feet, we continued our walk, followed by two of their sons on a motorbike.
We walked by men building new mausoleums and tombs while others were carving grave stones.
Women were cooking food and teenagers were fixing their motorbikes.
In the middle of the cemetery, there is a large roundabout where the kids play basketball. One of the boys passed me the ball: “do you want to play?” - I did my best and they laughed about me failing.
A group of girls was standing around us, watching. I asked them if they wanted to join: “No, that's for boys. But I like your nail polish”.
We continued to walk, now followed by the boys from the first family and the girls from the basketball court, when we saw a large gathering of people at the end of the road.
Jess turned towards me: “Do you think that's a cock fight?” - “Uhm, or a funeral” - “Oh right, I had totally forgotten where we were”. And it was true. After walking around for an hour, making new friends and sharing food, we felt like we had visited any other village in the Philippines. The only difference were the tombs, which were used for all kinds of practical reasons. To dry laundry, to nap on, as a table.
Here, it doesn't matter where you live. The mausoleums are great little bungalows to live in and we had forgotten the presence of the tombs after a couple of minutes.
Obviously, most of the people living in the cemetery didn't go there by choice but this place didn't feel like a slum at all, rather like a cute village in a strange location.
We had encountered the hospitality, that we had seen all over the Philippines and had met several smart and friendly people, who shared their food with us and showed us around.
My first interest in how they actually lived there vanished after a couple of minutes. They live there just like everybody else does. A mausoleum is just a room with a roof and a door, so it makes a great living space, a much better one than many people in Manila and in other places around the world have.
Manila South Cemetery
South Ave, Santa Cruz, Makati, 1205 Metro Manila
How to get there:
take a taxi