In Philippines, the living share space with the dead
MANILA: In the crowded sprawl of Manila, the living must
compete for space with the dead.
Fortunately for Virginia Bernardino and hundreds of other slum
dwellers who have moved into the largest cemetery in the Philippines,
the deceased don't seem to mind.
"So far we have not seen any ghosts here," the soft-spoken
Bernardino, 59, said with a chuckle. "I think that only happens in the
movies. As the saying goes, we should fear not the dead but the living."
For years, Manila North Cemetery, a public graveyard in the centre of
the capital of 12 million people, has been a thriving community for
those evicted from their homes or flocking from the provinces for better
opportunities in the big city.
After being forced from their state lot beside the cemetery to make
way for a new graveyard, Bernardino and her husband have converted her
mother-in-law's mausoleum into a home for their two sons, their wives
Living conditions are basic but the residents manage some creature
comforts. Clothes hang from lines strung among the makeshift shacks and
television sets flicker in a few homes with electricity stolen from
nearby power lines.
The mainly Roman Catholic country, now home to more than 86 million
people, has one of the fastest population growth rate in Asia at 2.36
percent, or 5,400 babies born each day. The incessant search for jobs
and accompanying migration to cities has worsened problems of poverty,
poor sanitation and urban decay.
A visit to Manila North Cemetery raises serious questions about
government boasts that the economy is ready for take-off.
The squatters try to make a living by painting and cleaning
gravestones and tombs. Others, like Bernardino's husband and children,
have found work outside the cemetery in casual labour.
Small children run through the rock-filled lanes in bare feet, their
faces and thin bodies covered with dirt.
"They already know that they should not make homes out of
cemeteries," said Dr. Eduardo Serrano, head of the Manila Health
Department's preventable diseases division.
"It's dangerous to their health. The problem is they are being asked
to leave but they keep on coming back," he said.
The country's housing shortage is expected to worsen as the
population continues to grow to a projected 142 million by 2040.
The high birth rate is tied to the strong influence of the Catholic
Church, which frowns on the use of contraceptives such as condoms and
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who survived an impeachment
attempt last year and an alleged coup plot in February, relies on the
support of the Church and shows no signs of reversing her emphasis on
natural family planning over artificial methods.
On All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, Catholic feasts on Nov. 1 and
2, cemeteries across the Philippines come alive as people pay their
respects to departed loved ones.
The holiday has also become a reunion for families, with graveyards
transformed into picnic grounds for the two days.
But for Bernardino and her neighbours, the annual event could spell
trouble. Richard Navarra, one of the cemetery's caretakers, said the
squatters would be asked to leave to make way for the crowds of
Manila North Cemetery, laid out in 1904, is the final resting place
for a number of Filipino figures, from presidents and senators to
popular actors. Like their prominence in life, their tombs celebrate
their passing with lavish splendour - a stark contrast to the lives of
the poor seeking shelter among the graves.
And for many of those buried in public cemeteries, dying does not
always mean resting in peace.
That is the lesson relatives of Herminia Lumindas have learned as
they wait anxiously for the caretakers to remove a coffin from the tomb
where they will bury her.
Many public cemeteries allow the use of certain grave sites for only
"What can we do?" Luminda's nephew Adriano said as he lit a candle.
"We don't have a choice because we do not have money to buy our own