Rickety huts made out of wood and galvanised steel teeter above gravestones, as children play amongst garbage, open sewage, and the dead. This is a place concealed from the roving eyes of tourists to the Philippines’ vibrant capital, Manila. With a population that far outnumbers work prospects, thousands have been driven to these makeshift dwellings. Since the 1950s, formidable slum communities have been built in the city’s public cemeteries. Occupied by gangs, prostitutes, labourers, and runaways, these communes are a cocktail of desperate poverty and danger.
Manila is not just one of the oldest cities in the world, but also one of the most densely populated. Lured from all corners of the country, people arrive in droves seeking out better lives and opportunities. Yet, too often, what they discover is a town bustling with frenetic poverty and bursting at its seams with inhabitants. And for those who are tasked with being both impoverished and uneducated, the city does not glitter of gold. They find themselves, unwittingly, doomed for life in the cemetery slums. And even after they have died, most are predestined to remain there.
Lacking in basic amenities such as electricity, running water, sanitation, and even proper accommodation, generations of families have eked out a living via whatever means necessary. And since President Duterte’s “war against drugs”, violent raids are frequent. Police routinely storm the slums on killing sprees. Many are resigned to their family members meeting bloody ends and lovingly tend to their graves after they are gone. The lack of funds or concern means that proper investigations are not often carried out for those who die within the walls of the cemeteries.
“That night, 50 police came into the cemetery,” Carmelia Bahacan, whose 37-year-old-son was killed, told the Guardian. “They shot him five times. He was dead after the first shot, but they continued shooting.”
She lives in a shack built on top of her son’s grave, and said that she liked that his body is next to her, buried in a tomb with her father.
“Someday soon I will die, and I would like to be buried here also,” she concluded ominously.
The police claim that many of the residents are unemployed and, with few options, often fall into criminal activities to make ends meet. As such, the cemetery neighbourhoods become a breeding ground for crime and lawbreakers.
Danial Eriksen is a creative director and photographer who spent years documenting off-the-grid communities in various places around the globe, and one of them was a cemetery slum in Manila. For a week, Eriksen lived alongside the slum-dwellers in Cemeterio Del Norte. For him, it was an eye-opener to experience how organised and self-contained it was. He described it as being somewhat surreal to witness people living amongst the dead – sometimes, sleeping on raised coffins with human remains.
“What I got from the community is that they felt safe in the graveyard,” he explained. “One of the elders once said: ‘The dead can’t hurt you.’”
“I was also fascinated by how the government had opened the cemetery for thousands of homeless to live in and turn the tombs into apartments,”
“The apartment type is like how apartments work. They are final resting places for people who cannot afford to buy their own lots at the cemetery. The cemetery management, which is the government, owns the land. They are built on top of one another to accommodate more people. Each apartment has a five-year lease. When a person is laid to rest in one of the units, his or her family has to pay for the lease. After five years, should they want their departed loved ones to stay there, they need to go to the management to renew their lease. Otherwise, they get evicted. The bones are usually placed in sacks. Ideally, they tag them and keep them in a storage area. Unfortunately, rarely does this happen. I think this is because of the big number of expired leases and the number of people looking for vacancies.”
When leases are not renewed, those skeletons are no longer taken care of and the bones are removed and forgotten. It is primarily the family’s duty to look after the remains of their deceased, yet, not everyone is able to afford to continue the maintenance of it. Often times, people remove the bones from the tombs; bones piled on top of one another in dark corners or stored in careless rucksacks are common sights.
Eriksen said that the number of people living in the cemetery continues to grow at an alarming rate, and feels that the government has not done enough to find a better alternative.
“The people have been in the cemetery for as long as elders can remember. No one has exact figures on how long people have been living there. But I’m certain it’s been a while,” he added.