Wherever I go I am drawn to cemeteries, as the culture of death always tells a lot about the people, who live it. In the Philippines I stumbled about a variation of outstanding customs and rituals that left me partly in awe. This is a tale of life and death in the Philippines.
First day in Manila, I had time to spend and so I did on the Manila South Cemetery, which is located in Makati. I took a friend with me and we found the graveyard hidden behind a hideous wall. We stumbled through a gate into sort of a building site as one section of the graveyard was being remodeled. Two young lads came and started to show us around. I quickly understood, that it is sort of a guiding service gig and so we went on.
Through a gap in another wall we came into the functioning section of the cemetery. I soon realized that families buy plots for their dead loved ones. But it was striking, that the coffins are not buried, but stapled on top of each other. I think the parcels are bought for a period of time and limited room is of the matter, therefore you can only extend the space in height.
Depending on how much money the family has these parcels of land can be bigger or smaller. Along the way, there were also rather small boxes, probably for urns. Less space means less costs. Put on top each other, these box graves look like little cubicle apartment buildings. Sometimes the people living there are already dead, too.
Our two guiding lads observed my doing very carefully and let me be. They were probably surprised by my interest in the boxes. They watched from afar, squatting over someone else’s grave. Quite the unusual sight for me — essentially the definition of not giving a damn about who lays underneath them, blasphemous and refreshing at the same time.
I loved the South Cemetery, but I know it’s a far cry from the Northern Cemetery in Manila. This infamous Cemeterio del Norte is basically a slum with 6,000 people living there, among them gangs and sex workers. I talked with my friend Joy about it and she rather advised not to go. But still, maybe next time I would consider it.
When I went north to the mountains of Northern Luzon I saw dead people, literally.
One important thing to know is that Spain ruled over the Philippines for more then 350 years. The Europeans forced many of their customs on the islanders. Certainly they wanted to establish their rule through the establishment of the Catholic church. Therefore the most common names until this day have a Spanish or Christian background.
One very interesting place in the North was Sagada, where cows and oxes were grazing upon graveyards. Traversing through a landscape of grave plates with R.I.P. inscription, a remainder of the American rule on the archipelago. I like these grave contradictions, a lot.
With the new belief system old rituals, gods, and animism had to go and were abolished. The dead were supposed to be buried in graves on a graveyard. But in the north this customs were opposed out of tradition. In the Lumiang caves, up to 200 coffins are buried in the mountains and have survived for more than 500 years.
But even more astonishing is the custom of hanging the coffin on the mountain walls. They were let down on strong ropes and wires and hang at the highest corners of the limestone walls alongside things that the dead might wanted to take with them, like chairs. The higher the coffins are, the more were the deceased loved by the family, says an ancient tale. It’s said, that the corpses of the dead are passed in fetal position through a chain of people. Going through the hands of the community the dead finally arrive at the mountain and are placed in small coffin. Unfortunately I don't find any pictures of the hanging coffins. I thought I did them, but can't find them. If I do, I will link them underneath this report...sorry for that.
One of the striking moments of my trip to the mountains was witnessing a ritual in Banaue. In the north many of the dead still live among the living. Apparently one room below the roof is reserved for them. Therefore they are both close to heaven and to the family.
Once in a while, when somebody in the family falls sick, or proactively if there is a vision about misfortune in the family there are rituals exercised with the corpses. It’s said that the removal of remaining skin on the bones can heal the disease in the family and brings health.
My very cunning tour guide Bupal, told me, that his family is exercising another bizarre ritual. His Uncle and Aunt took their dead parents and a deceased young sibling down to the living room. For five days there should be celebrations, mournings, and parties around the dead, which increased the well being of the family and made them reconnect with the dead. Bupal invited me and an American friend to join the last evening of this ritual. He asked specifically us to come, because it takes understanding to go to such a personal event. And there is a chain of actions. To enter the house of the ceremony, which was crowded with family members, it took the oldest brother of Bupal to introduce us.
But when we were in, we were warmly welcomed. And we were not alone. In one of the corners of the living room were three deceased, wrapped up in colorfully weaved cloth. They were just lying there and people sat around them. There was drinking and singing. Happy songs were followed by sad ones. And we were specifically asked to contribute. There were little prayers in between and gambling. The gambling part seems particularly prominent for these ceremonies and external gambling personal comes to these occasions.
It was beautiful and bizarre. There was a solemn and spiritual atmosphere and we were there only for the last of the five nights. I think it is a very interesting way to realize, that the dead are still with us, even if they are not alive anymore.
It was outstanding and touching to have been there with them. And another example of the very unusual traditions in the Philippines. I still don’t know what to make out of them completely, but I am grateful to have seen them. And I hope I will be introduced to so many more in the future.