As I walked further inside, I saw rubbles. They looked like they once belonged to a house. I also saw people selling snacks, candies, cigarettes and food. I heard music from somebody’s room or house. I caught a glimpse of TV program being watched by someone in their living room. I saw women washing clothes. I saw children studying and playing. I heard children’s laughter. I saw people having their meals together. All the streets there have name even though the houses have no number.
That place is like any usual small and densely populated village except that it has both the living and the dead sharing the space together. It’s a cemetery. It’s the Manila North Cemetery, in Laloma, Quezon City, Philippines. I first went there in 2006.
It was a total shock for me when I first stepped inside the Manila North Cemetery. When I was a young boy, during the annual Chinese tradition of Qing-Ming festival when we visited our ancestors’ graves, my parents always told me to watch my step, so I would not step on somebody’s tomb. It’s a big taboo. But what I saw in this place was beyond just stepping on somebody’s tomb. They jumped on it, they played on it, they bathed on it, they ate on it, they slept on it and God knows what else. They built houses on top of the tombs or enclosing them, or just lived in the huge mausoleums.
I am not going to talk about whether or not it’s right or wrong of them doing that. I will leave that discussion for the relevant parties. But, I just would like to share the art of survival those people have. A lot of them came from somewhere in the provinces outside of Metro Manila. They came to Manila where they thought they could earn more money. And as they do not have place to stay or cannot afford to rent or buy a house, they live in a cemetery which in their mind means free accommodation. Many of them have lived there for 10, 15, 20 years or more. Many of them were born there. A lot of them are also employed to look after the tombs and clean them regularly. Some of them live in the family mausoleums or the mausoleums that belong to their employers’ families.
They may be living in the cemetery, but their spirits remain high. They remain friendly. They smile despite the hardship they have gone through. What an art of survival they have in their heart and mind.
As I walked further inside, I saw more rubbles and I wasn’t sure what I stepped on anymore.