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Philippines

Life among the dead for Manila's poor

Generations of families have made their living among the headstones of their ancestors

Eloisa Lopez and Joe Torres, Manila

Eloisa Lopez and Joe Torres, Manila

Published: October 31, 2014 09:13 AM GMT

Updated: October 31, 2014 12:13 AM GMT

Life among the dead for Manila's poor

A woman sits outside a mausoleum in Manila (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

Marieta Royulaba has been a resident of Manila's South Cemetery for 58 years. Living with the dead has become her life — a life of deprivation and uncertainty shared by the millions of poor people in the Philippines.

"I grew up learning only this — to bury the dead, paint tombstones and clean mausoleums," she says.

Every year, days before the observance of All Souls' Day, Marieta prepares her home to welcome thousands of people who visit their departed loved ones. 

Home is the 25-hectare cemetery that has become, for many years now, an informal shelter for some 200 families whose source of income varies from selling flowers, cleaning tombs, burying the dead, and even pushing illegal drugs.

For such an unconventional life, Marieta beams with hope and optimism despite her poverty. By cleaning tombs, she was able to send her six children to school. One child, although still jobless, finished a course in aircraft mechanics.

"It isn't always about money. I am happy with what I do," she says.

Her children already rent a small house outside the cemetery, but Marieta chooses to sleep on a bench and settle beside one of her "tenants".

"Life is simpler here. The place is quiet and there is no trouble," she says. "By staying here, I help both the living and the dead," she says.

Unlike Marieta, Aurora Mangampo, 74, finds life in the cemetery "sad".

For 30 years now, Aurora has lived on the other side of the city at Manila's 54-hectare North Cemetery, which has become home to some 10,000 informal settlers. It is the biggest and oldest public cemetery in the country.

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"I've always wanted to leave," she says, "but I never have other opportunities." 

 

A family gathers around a small table at a Manila cemetery (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

 

Fed up with taking care of the resting place of the dead, Aurora has tried sewing, working as a manicurist and cutting hair.

"But it has never been easy," she says. Providing for her growing family has always been a struggle.

"I gave them [the children] all that I could, but none of them made it good in life," she says. 

One of her children is a motorcycle driver who brings visitors to the cemetery; another sells flowers, while her eldest son, who has been arrested for drug use twice, now suffers a mental illness. 

Life among the tombs carries with it an uncertain future. There is no clean water apart from the few wells that people have dug for themselves, no electricity and no shelter except for the headstones and mausoleums that serve as beds for the living.

Some "residents" survive from the monthly US$5 that owners of tombs give as payment for watching over graves, keeping them clean, and making sure that the bones of the dead and the ornaments on the graves are not stolen.

 

Children sit on a grave at a cemetery in Manila (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)

 

Marieta and Aurora are among the poorest of the poor in a city of 12 million residents. Some of them were born inside the cemetery to parents who came from the province to look for a better life in the national capital early in the last century.

Authorities tolerate the presence of the informal settlers "as long as they do not cause harm," says Alicia Bonoan, regional director of Metro Manila's social welfare office.

Bonoan says authorities have been offering assistance to the cemetery residents under a program that provides $40 per month for six months to help families find alternative housing.

So far, only 228 families have successfully relocated, while the majority of the residents have chosen to stay.

Despite assurances by the government that fighting poverty remains a high priority, a growing number of households in metro Manila claim to be poor, according to a recent survey by local pollster group Social Weather Stations.

For those living among the dead, there seems little room for optimism about the prospects of a better future.

"I spent half of my life living among the dead. I met my husband here, raised my three children here, and now even my grandchildren live here," she says.

"I only wish my grandchildren could have a life beyond this land of the dead," she adds.

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