Response: October 2014 Issue

Living With the Dead in Manila

United Methodist Women members’ mission giving supports education for stigmatized children in the Philippines.

Living  With the Dead  in Manila
A mother feeds her child in the doorway of a mausoleum that doubles as their home in the Manila North Cemetery in Manila, Philippines.

Manila's North Cemetery is the oldest graveyard in the Philippines, and its tombstones boast prominent names from the country's literary and political history. War heroes and former presidents are buried there. Yet between the tombs and inside the expansive mausoleums thrives a community of the living, people who call the cemetery their home.

Perhaps a million people are buried in the cemetery, which dates to the 19th century. Yet today as many as 10,000 people live among them, sleeping and eating on the crypts, operating small stores, restaurants and even Internet shops inside the mausoleums. City officials have at times tried to expel the living, but many have agreements with the relatives of the dead allowing them to remain as caretakers.

The children of the cemetery face special hardships, especially stigma. "Other children abuse them, saying that because they live in the cemetery they must be cooking the remains of the dead for dinner. The other children call them vampires," said Vicente Eliver, a social worker for the Kapatiran-Kaunlaran Foundation Inc. (KKFI), a longtime partner of United Methodist Women in the Philippines.

Stigma and poverty combine to keep many cemetery children out of school, so in 2011 KKFI launched an alternative educational program aimed at North Cemetery children who had dropped out of school. It approached nearby Santa Mesa Heights United Methodist Church, which gladly offered its sanctuary as a classroom. With support from United Methodist Women members' Mission Giving, KKFI trained teachers and began classes with 50 elementary through high school age children.

They soon realized they needed to provide food.

"Most of the kids coming to class had not eaten breakfast, and they had a hard time concentrating, so we added a meal to the experience," said Nancy Nicolas, KKFI's executive director.

They also soon added a preschool program and jeepney that serves as a school bus for the littlest. Ms. Nicolas says the idea emerged in part from a visit she made to a nearby orphanage that KKFI supported.

"I learned that some of children in the orphanage had come from the Manila North Cemetery. The program was supposed to be for abandoned children, but we discovered that many of the kids had parents, but they didn't have the resources to care for them or to send them to school, even though public schools are supposed to be free. So instead of being in school, little children were roaming the streets selling flowers or cigarettes or being passed off as orphans," she said.

Ms. Nicolas says one limiting factor in the children's development is the clash between their aspirations and the reality of urban life in the Philippines.

"If you ask the children about their dreams, they say they want to finish their education, get a job and move their family out of the cemetery. They almost all say that. But their parents say they're better off in the cemetery than in a squatters area," Ms. Nicolas said.

Municipal authorities have come up with schemes to relocate the cemetery residents elsewhere, especially as an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit approaches in 2015 and city officials look to cleanse public places of the "unsightly" poor, but they've failed to convince many in the cemetery to move out.

"We were given a place to relocate, but it was not developed. It was way up in the mountains. There was nothing there, and it was far from any work. Fortunately we looked at the place before we signed, because it was just a trick. So no one went. We had to fight for our right to stay," said Tita Villarosa, head of Samahang Mangagawa at Tagapangalaga sa Norte, an association of tomb caretakers.

The plight of the cemetery residents isn't unique in Manila, where roughly 43 percent of the population lives in informal settlements, according to a 2011 report from the Asian Development Bank. The fast-growing and dense population has created a massive housing shortage, meaning that poor urban families must fend for themselves, cobbling together housing wherever they can—along canals, under bridges, beside highways, even among the dead. For many, conditions in the cemetery are preferable to other options available to the poor.

"We're better off here than we'd be living in the streets," said Ms. Villarosa, who moved into the cemetery 20 years ago after her husband lost his job when the company where he worked closed its operations. "That job fed our four kids and paid for their studies, so without it we were in trouble. I cried because I didn't know what to do. But I had in-laws living here, and they invited us to come try it out."

Like most residents, Ms. Villarosa's family earns a small income by caring for graves, keeping them clean and occasionally painting them. She says the common compensation is 50 pesos a month per tomb (a little more than one dollar). Many families care for 20 to 30 tombs. That's not enough to survive on, so many men in the cemetery work on construction crews, while many women do laundry or work as nannies for middle class families outside. And throughout the cemetery, enterprising residents have turned their tombs into a variety of businesses, including sari-sari stores, the ubiquitous Philippine variety store that sells everything from rice noodles to batteries. Several funerals a day are conducted in the cemetery, and children can earn a few cents by helping to carry coffins. Other residents work exhuming bones out of crypts where five years have passed without a deceased person's family paying the yearly rent.

A jumbled network of pirated wires provides most residents with electricity, though often at higher rates than legal customers would pay on the outside. There is no sewage system. Water comes from wells, though those who can afford it prefer to buy water from the outside the cemetery for cooking and drinking.

Yet Ms. Villarosa, a United Methodist, says the biggest problem with living in the cemetery is the widespread stigma.

"Lots of people have the idea that we're all kidnappers, thieves, drug users or witches. The kids are ashamed and have an inferiority complex. But I tell them not to let anyone call them a witch, that they have to fight for their rights and respect," she said. "I'm not ashamed to live here. I've been to Bangkok and New York and Washington, D.C., and I've held my head high, representing the poor."

As it continues to accompany the people of the cemetery, KKFI has also launched a skills-training program for youth. They've held classes in cosmetology, tailoring, dress making and massage therapy. Even with the requisite skills, however, it can prove difficult to find employment, so early this year KKFI began negotiating with the owners of an electronics factory under construction about training the youth for employment in the plant.

According to Mr. Eliver, KKFI hopes to help youth break the cycle that keeps them in the cemetery.

"The people living in the cemetery get married and settle there among the dead, then their children get married and settle there. The livelihood of the parents becomes the livelihood of the children. The parents probably didn't finish school, and they don't have the resources to get their kids to finish school," he said. "We're trying to change that pattern so that kids can dream of becoming something other than a caretaker of old tombs."

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. Because cemetery guards deny entry to journalists, he climbed over the back wall of the cemetery to research and photograph this story. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 9/29/2014 11:00:00 PM