It was a steaming afternoon in summer when I found myself at the gates of Manila North Cemetery drenched in sweat and wondering what awaited me within. Other than the obvious.
I knew that the cemetery was home to more than just the dead. A community of some of Manila’s very poorest lived within its walls, and had done for generations, vulnerable Filipinos seeking to escape the myriad dangers of Manila’s overpopulated and brutal city streets.
My guide Maria had been there many times, showing outsiders like me just how a place designed for the dead can become so popular with the living. The official number of residents is almost 3,000 though the true number is thought to be closer to 56,000. “New people arrive all the time,” Maria explained, “some are told to leave by the government but most get through.” I could see how anyone could disappear here, at 54 hectares Manila North is one of the largest public cemeteries in the city.
As we entered the gates under the grill of the Filipino summer sun, so too did a seemingly endless procession of funerals. Gleaming white hearses pimped with gold hub caps crawled by, blasting out soft rock ballads while mourners rode scooters wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the face of the recently departed. “We like to celebrate life!” Maria laughed. The 90’s hit “Love Shack” echoed among the gravestones.
The cemetery opened up like a small town. Towering marble mausoleums lined the pot holed main road, some so grand they had air conditioned bedrooms attached for overnighting family. Other older sites crumbled and buckled, broken by vegetation. Each held the remains of the dead but some had telltale signs of another very live resident. Clothes dried next to plates of half eaten food, a makeshift bed on a concrete floor. This was part of the reason why so many fought for their place among the tombs; rent free living and a sense of safety scarcely found where only the poorest live. But they were not immune. So called drug bust raids were common and Maria recounted in hushed tones stories of disappearance and murder, committed by a force tasked with protection.
There were other downsides. “Many children are bullied at school,” Maria said, “they are called multo [ghost] or zombies. They don’t want to go back, so they stop school. They make money by collecting melted wax from the candles and sell it to the recycling centre”.
We continued on through this cemetery that felt like a neighborhood. Women and children sat in groups among the graves chatting and washing clothes. Bright flags of red and orange and gold hung lazily on a string of bunting stretching from one side of the street to the other. A scooter flew past as cockerels used for cock fighting crowed. Each corner opened up more graves and more life. A tearful group of young girls surrounded a dead puppy on the roadside, it’s little lifeless body bizarrely dressed in a tiny pink tutu. The place was like nothing I’d seen before.
“There was an old lady we saw last week,” Maria began somberly, “she shouted “Hello!” to me, so we stopped and she touched my arm asked me who these people were. I said “These are my guests, they have come to see the cemetery”. She smiled and walked away, but all of a sudden I started to feel very bad. I was so cold. My head was spinning and I felt sick and just wanted to sleep. She stared into the middle distance, absently fanning herself. I couldn’t form a thought and felt so cold although it was a hot day. I know it was the old woman’s fault. Us Filipinos are superstitious, we believe certain things and I think the woman gave me bad energy. The way you get a sick feeling like that? So quickly. It was her, I think she was a multo.
And so there we stood together on that summer afternoon. Surrounded by the living and the dead, two visitors to a world within a world, a tale of superstition hanging in the air.