Living six feet over
Slum residents hole up in Manila cemetery
Sleeping in cemeteries is not something many would consider.
But for some Filipinos, living among the dead is a way of life.
Manila's North Cemetery, the oldest and the largest in Metro Manila, is home to a community of the city's bottom dwellers.
They eat, sleep and play among tens of thousands of mausoleums and tombs.
Miss Joycelyn Yeo, 22, had the opportunity to visit this unique community as part of research for her final year thesis.
The South-east Asian Studies student at the National University Of Singapore spent a month there, although she did not stay overnight on advice.
"The people who looked out for me told me it's not safe at night, particularly for a girl," Miss Yeo told The New Paper.
She spoke of the growing number of criminals living in North Cemetery as the "place is like a maze with its many streets and avenues".
"There's a saying (in the community) that they fear the living more than the dead."
She recently shared her experience at the Perspectives Film Festival 2014 as it coincided with its theme of displacement.
Miss Yeo found out about the community through her church, St James' Church, which linked her up with the Manila-based Philadelphia Christ-Centered Fellowship.
The Philippine church , which has been helping the North Cemetery residents for years, provided Miss Yeo with guides who served as translators.
Her solo month-long trip in July this year was an eye-opener.
Living conditions were very basic. The residents slept on cardboard boxes, rubber mats or mattresses placed on the floor or on the tombs.
Cooking was done on portable stoves using water they drew from nearby wells.
The water collected was also used for showering. Privacy was non-existent, said Miss Yeo, recalling how the residents would shower in the open with sarongs tied around themselves.
"Some mausoleums have comfort rooms, so if they were given permission by the owners, the residents would be able to use them to relieve themselves."
If not, it would be anywhere they fancy, thus "hygiene is a bit of a problem", said Miss Yeo.
She also came across heartbreaking stories.
"There were women lying on top of their husbands' tombs because they couldn't bear to be alone," Miss Yeo recounted.
She was also amazed how the families were so large, with an average of 10 people per household, and how the cemetery's infrastructure supported the slum community.
What struck her most was the narrow boundary between life and death. She described seeing newborn babies sleeping on tombs.
"It really didn't bother the residents that they were surrounded by tombs," she said.
"They lived in makeshift homes. Those with jobs will go out to work and come back in the evening, while the children go to the nearby schools," said Miss Yeo.
Most of the residents serve as caretakers of the mausoleums and tombs, or find odd jobs such as carrying coffins during funerals as the cemetery is still fully functioning.
"They all look forward to All Souls Day, where they'll be paid a lump sum of money and given lots of food from families who come to pay respects to their dead relatives."
All Souls Day - a day where Catholics commemorate those who have died - falls on Sunday.
That day will be like Christmas to the community there, said Miss Yeo, as there will be lots of drinking and merry-making as up to three million people visit the cemetery during the weekend.
THE NORTH CEMETERY
- It is owned by the City of Manila and was planned out in 1904.
- It covers an area of about 130 acres or the size of the Botanic Gardens.
- It is non-denominational, although Roman Catholics make up more than eight in 10 of all Filipinos.
- Many of the tombs are stacked due to space constraints.
- It is said that there are thousands of squatters living among the dead.
- Among the people buried there are actors, historians and several ex-presidents.
- It houses several heritage structures such as the Mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution.