The Broader Picture: Dwellings of life and death

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EVERY CITY has its homeless. Manila has more than most. By the year 2000, 50 per cent of the population of the Filipino capital will be without proper homes. In such an environment, anything resembling a space of one's own is a bonus, even if one has to bed down with the dead in order to get it. Hence these scenes from the city's ancient North Cemetery, which some 5,000 families of squatters have claimed for their own.

Unintimidated by the crumbling gothic architecture, the ubiquitous religious imagery or the bones (kept in elegant mausoleums) of some of the Philippines' most notable heroes, the squatters have surrounded themselves with an impressive range of creature comforts. Many 'houses' are wired for electricity, tapped from mains cables outside the walls, and fridges rumble, televisions blare and cookers sizzle in astonishing contrast to the solemn memorials and sad-faced statues around them. As in any village, there are corner shops: crypts, stocked with tinned food, vegetables and sweets, which double as distribution points for mail. But not everyone has the patience to use the 'streets'. Children tend to leap from tomb to tomb; crosses make useful handholds.

In terms of dead bodies, the cemetery has long been full, and only a few burials still take place here. Most are in cheap 'rental' graves, whose occupants are dug up and thrown away when their five- or 10-year 'contracts' are up. But there are also many private mausoleums still used by richer families, in which the dead lie in state in glass-topped coffins while relatives pay their last respects. The squatting families who have taken up residence there carry on life as usual around the bodies, often using the coffin-tops as dining-tables. The crypts' owners take a relaxed view of the interlopers: death is less of a taboo here than in Western cultures. And at least having a family in your mausoleum reduces the chances of vandalism.

There are drawbacks to cemetery life. There is no water supply, and the sewerage system consists of a few open rainwater drains. On hot days the smells mingle uncomfortably with other, danker, odours seeping from under the tombstones. Yet it is a safe place. There is less violence than in the dirty, overcrowded shanty towns which house most of Manila's homeless. And at least the cemetery-dwellers are safe from the city's 'cleanliness and beautification' drive, in which shanty towns are razed in a bid to force the poor back into rural areas. A recent bulldozing of some 100 shacks in the Malabon region left 80 people injured and one dead. But no demolition squad would dare touch the North Cemetery.

Photographs by Jack Picone

(Photographs omitted)

Comments