Manila North Cemetery

Living with the dead in Manila North Cemetery

Metro Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It’s also the city with more homeless than any other city in the world. Many people live in slums, and an estimated 6000 people have decided to live in Manila North Cemetery. The cemetery was built in 1904 on 130 acres of land and is owned by the government. Many mausoleums were built, making it possible for people to move into these small “houses.”

People started moving in the mausoleums almost as soon as it was done being built. Some of the families have been here for 4 generations. They sleep on mattresses, have cable TV, electricity… children play outside, people cook, do laundry, like in any ordinary town. Some have even opened shops and restaurants. Most of the “tenants” make a living inside the cemetery, maintaining the graves, digging, building coffins, selling flowers… Making it a fully functional city.

living in Manila North Cemetery

The city of Manila, tolerating this phenomenon, is far from trying to improve the situation. The tenants getting illegal access to electricity often get power cuts. There is no sanitation, access to water is complicated, garbage disposal is quasi-nonexistent, and nothing is done about health and education.

Laundry day in Manila North Cemetery
Laundry day in Manila North Cemetery

Surprisingly the situation between the illegal tenants and the owners is pretty peaceful. The owner usually calls the “tenants” in advance to tell them they’re coming to visit their deceased relatives and the tenants move out for a while. The owners often allow the tenants to live in the mausoleum in exchange for taking care of it.

Outdoor kitchen in Manila North Cemetery
Outdoor kitchen in Manila North Cemetery

While walking around, I got the feeling that even if people are really poor, they are happy and that they are making the most of a bad situation. If they didn’t have the cemetery to live in, they would probably be on the streets. It can seem horrible having to sleep surrounded by dead people but in Manila, it’s, unfortunately, one of the best options for many people…

Before you go to Manila North Cemetery:

Do not take photos of the people without asking first.

It’s probably better to be accompanied by a local, I don’t advise wandering there by yourself.

Next to it is the Chinese Cemetery, built in the 1850s by rich Christian Chinese merchants. It’s a town within a town, with streets and mausoleum looking like houses.

Chinese Cemetery Manila
Chinese Cemetery Manila

This one is pretty much deserted except on All Souls Day where families come to have a feast with the deceased. You can easily visit it on your own, you’ll probably get a weird feeling though. It’s basically a ghost town, the mausoleums resemble luxurious houses with balconies, fountains, marble floor… some of them even have A/C. The deceased here are better accommodated than most people in Manila.

Traveling to the Philippines? Check out more things to do while there.

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