Funeral rites are every important to Filipinos. At some funerals, Filipinos drop cash into boxes, biscuit cans and glass jars near or in the coffin. On Camigan island the dead are displayed under a glass sheet in a spray painted wooden coffin. Tagalogs believe that the spirts of the dead remain hanging around for a considerable time before departing to the afterworld and hold that body returns to the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. They used to place the body in a grave and rebury the bones later in an ossuary.

As Catholics, Filipinos practice the religion’s ideologies concerning death and conduct their funeral services in accordance to Catholic theology. The basic format of death rituals and celebrations in provinces, where "funeral parlors" are not yet popular, are wake, vigils, burial, nine-day-novena, 40th day, and 'waksi' (death anniversary). However, many aspects that appear in Filipino burial practices involve cultural superstitions and traditions specific to regions of the country.

For Filipino Catholics twenty-four-hour vigil is held at the deceased person's home, and the body is escorted to the cemetery after the religious ceremony. The tradition is for mourners to walk behind the coffin. A mausoleum is built during the lifetime of the user. The size of the edifice indicates the position of the builder. Mourning is worn for six weeks after the death of a family member. It may consist of a black pin worn on the blouse or shirt of the mourner or black clothing. Mourning is put aside after one year. A meal or party is provided for family members and close friends one year after the burial to commemorate recognize the memory of the deceased. [Source:]

Though the majority of Filipinos are Catholic, often ancient burial traditions are entwined with Christian ones. For example, the Apayaos of the Cordillera Administrative Region bury their dead family members under the kitchen in their home. Another example hails from the Benguet region where the deceased is blindfolded and set in a sitting position next to the main entrance of the house for eight days. The Ilongot bury their dead in a sitting position, often tying the hands and feet together to prevent the spirit from roaming. [Source: Katharine Viola, Demand Media]

Professor Susan Russell at Northern Illinois University wrote: “ Death is always an occasion that marks a society's traditions, and in the Philippines funerals are usually accompanied by somber village processions and music, essential parts of Roman Catholic ritual practice. Filipino indigenous religious beliefs traditionally celebrated rice planting and harvesting times, the death anniversaries of departed ancestors, and these have been blended in meaning and timing with Catholic rites such as All Saint's Day and Fiesta de Mayo. [Source: Professor Susan Russell, Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University,]

Philippine Wakes and Vigils

Wakes are generally held from three to seven days. Provincial wakes are usually held in the home, while city dwellers typically display their dead at a funeral home. Apart from spreading the news about someone’s death verbally, obituaries are also published in newspapers. [Source:]

Once a death has occurred, it is important that a priest bless the body to ensure the deceased will get into heaven. A Chinese-Filipino custom involves the hiring of professional mourners to expedite the process. For the wake, the body of the deceased is prepared and laid out in the home. Family members do not work or participate in activities during this time. The wake may last anywhere from three to seven days, which allows friends and family to say their last goodbyes. Filipinos do not cremate the bodies of the dead; they must remain intact so they can resurrect.[Source: Katharine Viola, Demand Media /*/]

Aaron Simon Caparaz wrote: “A celebration in a wake of a dead relative may be offensive or improper to many cultures, but in the Philippines, especially in provinces, it is a norm that has been passed on from generations along with rituals and superstitious beliefs. The mourning and the weeping are still present, but a happy and welcoming atmosphere would usually envelop the place to help the deceased on his journey to the afterlife. Filipinos consider the deaths of relatives as opportunities to strengthen ties in the family. Long lost relatives, friends, and even relatives working abroad would re-unite to pay respect and honor the relationship they had with the deceased. [Source: Aaron Simon Caparaz,, September 27, 2010]

"Vigils" are held all throughout the night until the burial of the dead to keep the deceased company. People usually kill time during the vigil by eating, drinking, gambling or just plain talking with one another. During the time of the wake, the nearest kin is expected to sit beside the body in order to receive contributions or ‘abuloy’ to the visitors. In return, the family in mourning is expected to prepare food and refreshments for their guests.

Filipino Funeral

After the wake, a funeral procession takes place, a Mass is given and a burial follows. A rosary is placed in the hands of the deceased and before the coffin is lowered into the ground, the casket is reopened for one last goodbye. Some Filipinos break the rosary to prevent another death in the family, and small children wear red so that the spirit of the dead will not haunt them.

As a rule, the casket is open and it is very normal for people to touch the body of the dead person. Filipinos don’t believe in cremation and feel a body should remain whole. Rosary sessions are held each night for thirty days to aid the deceased in getting to heaven. These sessions take place in the home of the deceased’s family and are another opportunity/obligation for family and friends to publicly pay their respects to the immediate family of the deceased. At this time and throughout the period of visitation and funeral, it is considered disrespectful to show emotions that are anything but “somber and depressed.” [Source: Sandi Clark, -]

Funeral arrangements — such as the casket and flowers — are very elaborate, since what occurs at the funeral is considered a reflection of the deceased’s life. The funeral itself is a long procession on foot (since towns are small enough for the cemetery to be close by), with participants singing parts of prayers all the way to the cemetery. The procession will take an indirect route to the cemetery and make its way around the town to give as many people as possible the last opportunity to pay respects to the deceased. -

Aaron Simon Caparaz wrote: “The burial is a very solemn event. The family would view the body for the last moments and then the lid of the coffin is closed. Before the coffin is moved out of the house, members of the family say a prayer. The coffin is then carried out the main door feet first. This act symbolizes the exiting of a person, where if the head was to go out first, it is believed that the spirit of the deceased will not leave the house. The coffin is then loaded on a horse carriage, or carried by chosen individuals. The traditional funeral procession in the Philippines involves walking to the church and the cemetery, no matter how long the distance is. Today friends and other relatives who cannot participate in the parade can opt to ride a car during the procession. [Source: Aaron Simon Caparaz,, September 27, 2010]

After a Filipino Funeral

Aaron Simon Caparaz wrote: “After the burial a nine day groups prayers offered to the dead, must take place. These group prayers are held to help the deceased enter the gates of heaven. The fourth and ninth days are said to be the time where the soul of the deceased comes back. A food offering is left outside the door of the family’s house during these days to offer to the soul of the deceased. The 40th day after the death of the person is celebrated because it is said that on that day the spirit of the deceased ascends to heaven. Exactly one year from the day of the death, a final mourning called ‘waksi’ is celebrated. In a waksi, the family prepares a feast and, together with the visitors, offers prayers to the deceased. Some provinces consider this as the day where the family can go back to wearing colored clothes. [Source: Aaron Simon Caparaz,, September 27, 2010]

For one year or more, grieving family members wear black. Men wear black ribbon around their arms, and women dress entirely in black. Often, women who lose a child wear black for the rest of their lives. It is customary for family members to frequently visit the grave, especially on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The grave sites are cleaned, adorned with flowers and candles are lit to assist with prayer. Food is also served during this time. /*/

Death and Loss in the Philippines: One Woman’s Story

Sandi Clark of the University of Indiana wrote: “Maria (a pseudonym) is a 38-year-old woman who was born in the Philippines. Her family is very close- knit and strongly Catholic. Maria began our conversation about the customs surrounding death and grieving by describing Filipinos as “very Catholic.” She stated that even families who do not go to church regularly or who aren’t strongly religious will fall back on Catholic traditions at the time of a death. While Filipinos will seek medical advice and use medical technology, apparently their fundamental belief is that a person’s death is “an act of God” and that strong faith can thwart a death. When it doesn’t, however, there can be guilt that one’s faith wasn’t strong enough to save a loved one. [Source:Sandi Clark, ^^]

“Maria described many of the rituals surrounding death as very “showy.” Women are expected to grieve very openly — publicly sobbing, swooning, fainting, and/or hugging the casket of the dead person — while men are typically more reserved. Maria was raised to believe that obvious, public grieving indicates how much the griever cared for the deceased and, also, lets God know how heavy the griever’s burden is. She said that the Filipinos believe that the “more emotion shown, the more respect shown.” Maria felt that another showy, public tradition surrounding death is the family’s spending of lots of money — on the food offered during visitation, the casket, the flowers, the service, the burial place — to make sure that the deceased is seen as loved and esteemed. It is usual for families to talk openly and with pride about the debt they incurred as a result of a funeral — the greater the debt, the greater the family’s standing. ^^

“Since Filipino society is very close, people are expected to come together to grieve in groups rather than do so privately. Maria said that family and friends are expected to come forward to support to the grieving family and that not doing so is considered an offense. Filipinos judge the life and stature of the deceased by the number of people gathered for the visitation or funeral; and when people gather during visitation, there is very open discussion about the deceased and one’s grief. ^^

“Maria said that when she lived in the Philippines there were no nursing or funeral homes. People might visit hospitals briefly for acute conditions, but most people are cared for and die at home. (In the case of the elderly, the tradition is that the person would be cared for by the oldest child.) Once a death has occurred, it is considered very important for the deceased to be blessed by a priest to ensure he or she will get to heaven. The body is both prepared for burial and laid out for visitation in the home. Word of mouth is the main source of news about the death and burial. In the period after the death and before the burial — which is between three and seven days, depending on how long it might take certain family members to travel to the town of burial — the family stops all personal business. Instead of working or resuming normal activities, the family cooks and makes other preparations for the visitation that is ongoing until the burial. ^^

“Maria mentioned that Filipino culture holds that the “longer the grief, the better.” For up to a year and often beyond, men will wear a black ribbon and women will dress in black to indicate they are in mourning. It would not be unusual for a widow or a woman who has lost a child to death to dress in black the rest of her life. Other rituals that extend the period of mourning include holding masses for a specific dead person at several local churches over the weeks following the death. (Again, family and friends are expected to attend.) Families also visit the deceased’s grave often for months after the burial (particularly on major holidays) and hold a special mass on the first anniversary of the death. In the case of relatives of Maria who recently lost a young adult, the mother, father, and two brothers slept in the bedroom of the deceased for six months after her death in order to be closer to her. This was considered only slightly unusual. ^^

Death and Funeral Superstitions in the Philippines

Elements of Filipino superstitious beliefs connected to death and funerals entail the involvement of the sudden appearances of certain animals, particularly those that are black in color. Examples are the following: the appearance of a lingering black-colored butterfly around an individual is taken to indicate that a next of kin of that person died; the sighting of a black-hued cat by an ill individual heading toward a hospital would mean that he or she may not survive his or her disease; the detection of an owl near the home of a sick individual signifies imminent death for that person. [Source:]

Death superstitions: 1) A black butterfly flitting inside the house will bring death in the household. 2) A dog barking or howling continuously signifies the impending death of its master. 3) A man without shadow will soon die. 4) Candles must be burned for the dead to protect them from evil spirits. 5) A picture falling from the wall on its own is an omen of the death of the person in the picture. 6) Sleeping in front of a mirror can cause the death of that person whose soul might get trapped in the mirror. 7) Trampling on a man’s shadow can cause his death. 8) Dreaming of an extracted tooth means death of a close relative. 9) Among the Ilocanos dreaming of the loss of a hat, broken earrings and clothes swept away by a river current will mean the death of a relative or close friend. Dreaming of a jar of money means impending death of a family member among Bicolanos. To Aklanons a boat ride is an omen of death in the family. [Source: , March 6, 2012 ^*^]

10) In Central Luzon it is believed that if it rains when a person dies is a sign that such a person was a good man since even the heavens weep for him. 11) Smelling the fragrance of flowers for the dead means someone will die. 12) The spirit of a person who dies a violent day will become earthbound. 13) A dead person who is buried with his shoes on will haunt his relatives and, during his arrival, his loud footsteps will be heard. 14) Before a dead person is buried his shoes or slippers must be removed and placed beside his legs so that St. Peter will welcome him at Heaven’s gate. For a relative to assist in carrying the coffin to the grave will mean another death in the family. ^*^

15) The Ilocanos break a plate as an offering to the dead. 16) No kin should look back or attempt to go back to the house after the funeral procession has started. 17) Leytenos bring out the coffin from the house through the window to make it easier for the newly departed to rest in peace. 18) If a rosary is placed in the hand of the dead prior to burial, its string should be snapped because continuity in the beads will mean another death in the family. 19) A person who sneezes in front of a corpse will also die. 20) Many Filipinos bury precious items with the dead for use in the afterlife. 21) Right before the coffin is lowered in the grave, the children of the dead person are made to step across the coffin while adults throw flowers into the open grave so the spirit of the departed kin will not haunt them. ^*^

Superstitious rules during the wake and the burial: 1) Feed the mourners, but don't walk them to the door when they leave. 2) Don’t sweep the floor while the body is still lying in state or else other deaths in the family may follow. 3) No tears should fall on the dead or the coffin as it would make a person's journey to the afterlife difficult. 4) When someone sneezes at the wake, pinch him. 5) During the wake the dead person's relatives must not take a bath. 6) Food from the wake should not be brought home because it's believed that the dead touches all of it. 7) After a funeral service, guests should not go directly home. This way the spirit of the dead won't follow them to their house. 8) When carrying a coffin out for burial, it should be carried head first as it prevents the soul of the dead from coming back. 9) Before a man comes home from a funeral he should light a cigarette from a fire at the cemetery gate to shake off spirits of the dead. 10) The corpse should be positioned facing the door - the feet should be facing toward the door so it will allow the spirit or depart easily. 11) Family members should wear black or white, colors are prohibited. 12) Weddings, birthdays, and other social activities should not be celebrated for one year. 13) The widow, children, and immediate family members are prohibited from carrying the coffin or else they will become ill and die. 14) While the casket is on its way to the cemetery or the church, relatives who preferred to stay at home should not have a glimpse of the casket or else someone in the family would die. [Source: Aaron Simon Caparaz,, September 27, 2010]

Funeral Traditions of Different Philippines Ethnic Groups and Regions

The Apayao, also known as the Isnegs or Isnags, of the Cordillera Administrative Region bury the deceased person under the kitchen area of their homes. The Ilongot are buried in a sitting position, and if a woman, has her hands tied to her feet, to prevent her "ghost" from roaming. The Bilaan people of Mindanao wrap their dead inside tree barks. Being enveloped as such, the dead person's body is then suspended from treetops. [Source: +++]

For eight days, the indigenous people from Benguet blindfold the dead and then sit it on a chair that is placed next to a house’s main entrance. The arms and legs are held in the sitting position by means of tying. A bangil rite is performed by the elders on the eve of the funeral, which is a chanted narration of the biography of the deceased. During interment, the departed is directed towards heaven by hitting bamboo sticks together. +++

Some rural area residents in Cavite use of trees as burial places. The dying person chooses the tree beforehand, then when it becomes evident that person is going to die soon, either through sickness or old age, a hut is constructed close to the chosen tree. When that person dies, they is entombed vertically inside the hollowed- out tree trunk. +++

Filipinos in the Ilocos regions of the Philippines also have their own funeral and burial traditions, known as the pompon or "burial rites". An example would be how a dead husband is prepared by the wife for the wake, known in Ilocano as the bagongon. Typically, only the wife will cloth the corpse, believing that the spirit of the spouse can convey messages through her. Placement of the coffin is also important, which is to be at the center of the home and must be corresponding to the planks of the floorboards. Lighting a wooden log in front of the house is also customary because the smoke assists the spirit of the dead towards heaven. This log is kept in flames during the wake to repel wicked spirits. The ceremonial attire of the female family members for the vigil is clothing with black coloration. Their heads and shoulder area are shrouded with a black handkerchief known as the manta. +++

Funeral Burial superstitions of the Ilocano people include closing all windows first before taking the casket out of the home, preventing any part of the coffin to hit any part of the dwelling (to prevent the spirit of the dead from loitering to bring forth dilemmas to the household; to some Filipinos, a coffin hitting any object during a funeral means that another person will soon die, and washing the hairs of family members with a shampoo known as gogo (to remove the influence of the spirit of the departed). rice cakes and basi to attendees after each prayer offering session. On the ninth night, a feast is held after the praying or novena. They will again recite prayers and a feast after one year. +++

One of the ancient customs for burying the dead in the Philippines is through the use of burial jars known as Manunggul jars. These ancient potteries were found in the Manunggul Cave at the island of Palawan. A characteristic of the jars for the dead is the presence of anthropomorphic human figures on the pot covers. These figures embody souls riding a boat for the dead while seafaring towards their sanctuary in the afterlife. These containers have been dated to be from 710 BC to 890 BC. There are also figures of boating people steering paddles, wearing headbands, jaw-bands, and persons with hands folded across the chest area. The latter is a method of arranging the remains of the dead. +++

Superstitions in Davao City include cutting rosaries that are placed within the hands of the departed (to sever the possibility of having a series of deaths), placement of a chick on the coffin during wakes, preventing teardrops from reaching coffins (in case of brutal deaths), breaking plates prior to taking the coffin out of any edifice, making children walk under a hoisted coffin before loading the latter into the hearse, and smoking feet with smoke coming from burning dried leaves or paper when leaving the burial ground. +++

Frank Malabed: the Philippines’ Mortician to the Stars

Cecil Morella of AFP wrote: “Before dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a host of other famous Philippine figures met their Maker, they met Frank Malabed.An assassinated democracy hero, a soft-porn star, high-profile socialites and political statesmen are others to have been sent to the afterlife by the country’s most prominent – and arguably passionate – mortician.“I make people beautiful even in death,” the bespectacled 62-year-old grandfather with a sparse walrus moustache told AFP from his home office in a working-class Manila neighborhood. “Embalming is either 100 percent or zero. It cannot be 99 percent. A dirty carpet or scratched casket can be changed, but if you botch the job you cannot tell the family you’re going to replace the body.” [Source: Cecil Morella, Agence France-Presse, November 8, 2012 :/]

“Malabed dreamed as a child of becoming an engineer, but his father was a mortician and his teenage years were spent learning the art of caring for the dead. He tagged along in the 1960s when his father went to work each day at Clark, a then-huge US air base in the Philippines that played a key role in the Vietnam War. The father retired as the war escalated, leaving the 18-year-old son to take over on the embalming frontline as thousands of dead US soldiers were brought back from Vietnam to be prepared for their journey home. “We had 30-40 casualties a day,” Malabed said, recounting how Filipino and American morticians worked at a hangar on bodies wheeled out on gurneys from the nearby runway.

“Malabed later married the daughter of a family that ran a chain of provincial mortuaries, and found life caring for the dead was very comfortable. “It was not my first choice, but when I got into it I found out I was good at it,” he said, adding the pay was also reasonable. Malabed is a devout Catholic and he prays before he starts work. But he said he never believed in ghosts, witches or evil spirits. Neither did he suffer nightmares from being with the dead alone for hours at a time in a room, armed with hypodermic syringes and make-up kits. :/

“Malabed’s most famous client was Marcos, the dictator whose two-decade rule of the country ended in 1986 when millions of protesters took to the streets in a “people power” revolution. After Malabed moved to Manila in the 1970s to work for a large mortuary, he embalmed a brother and a sister of Imelda Marcos, the president’s wife. The family noted his good work and he was later tasked with looking after the bodies of other Marcos relatives, including the president’s mother. In 1987, a year after Ferdinand Marcos was toppled and sent to exile in Hawaii, Malabed set up his own business that offered luxury US-made bronze caskets and personalised mortuary services. :/

“Business really kicked off when Marcos died in exile 1989 and the family wanted his body preserved for an eventual return to the Philippines. Malabed shuttled between Manila and Honolulu every month to take care of the body until 1993, when the Philippine government finally allowed it to be flown to the dictator’s northern Philippine hometown of Batac. The widow demanded a hero’s burial in Manila, but when that was rejected Malabed pumped in special cavity fluid to make sure the body remained intact for 25 years. He put the corpse in a glass case for public exhibit at a mausoleum built at the family’s provincial home, where the body remains today. Even now Malabed remains on good terms with the family, and attended an 82nd birthday party for Imelda Marcos last year. :/

“But unknown to many, Malabed also embalmed Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, the Marcos family’s arch-political foe whose shooting assassination at Manila airport by government forces in 1983 altered Philippine history. “I don’t care about political affiliations. If anyone needs my service they just have to dial my number. I am on call 24 hours a day,” Malabed said.Dressed by Malabed in the same blood-stained jacket the democracy champion had worn on his fatal homecoming from US exile, the Aquino corpse became the rallying point for street protests that later led to Marcos’s downfall. The murdered politician’s wife, Corazon, would lead the “people power” revolution and assume the presidency from Marcos. Aquino’s son and namesake is the country’s current president. :/

Other famous clients include recent plane-crash victim Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, both parents of ex-president Fidel Ramos, and local soft-porn actress Claudia Zobel, a 1984 car-crash victim. Malabed boasts his reputation for attention to detail has some wealthy clients signing him up for future services while they are still alive. “I am a perfectionist… I cannot be rushed,” he said. Bodies must be washed and disinfected by hand, he said, and blood thoroughly squeezed out from their veins through massage. Otherwise, the injected chemicals could lead to grotesque skin discoloration. He accused some fellow Filipino embalmers of taking dubious shortcuts so they could earn more money working on more corpses. :/

“I am probably the only mortician in the Philippines who does not snip a dead person’s funeral clothes down the back to make them fit. Those are the last clothes they will ever wear on earth, so they must be intact,” he said. He said he worked on just five corpses a month and charges only “about half” the 550,000-1.8 million pesos ($13,300-43,500) in professional fees quoted by top Manila funeral homes. Malabed was reminded of his own mortality when he suffered a mild stroke last year, but this has not slowed him down. And he is content knowing he will be in good hands when called by his Creator. “My two daughters are also licensed embalmers. They will know what to do,” he said.” :/

Living in Manila’s Largest Cemetery

About 50,000 poor Filipinos live in Norte, or the North Manila Cemetery, the Philippines’ largest public burial ground. Reporting from there, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Life is hard: Without plumbing or running water, the narrow streets overflow with foul effluent dumped from buckets. The bootleg electricity lines rigged amid the gravestones are often cut by city officials. Yet the alternative is worse — the squalor of itinerant Manila slums such as Tondo. In a metropolitan area where 20 percent of the 10 million residents are homeless, the most destitute exist atop a sprawling garbage dump in Tondo where crime and disease are rampant. In Norte, life is safer, and quieter. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2006 -]

“There are few places on Earth where grinding poverty and overcrowding foster such an unlikely life-and-death arrangement. In Cairo's 700-year-old City of the Dead, nearly 1 million people live among the ancient tombs. Here on the Philippine archipelago, experts attribute Norte's large number of residents not only to economic necessity, but to the culture's peculiar attitude toward death.-

“But many disapprove of the living tomb-dwellers. Come campaign season, some Manila politicians repeat the promise to "clean up Norte," which some view as a national disgrace. "It's not right," city housing officer Deogracias Tablan said. "These people have been tolerated. But this is a sacred place for the dead that has been taken over by the living. Shouldn't the deceased be allowed to rest in peace?" Manila newspaper columnist Adrian Cristobal dismisses such government complaints. "It's a solution for the destitute," he said of Norte. "And they may be poor, but these people are all voters. The politicians are afraid to touch them." Norte resident May Canary insists she's not disturbing anyone. "Our life here is not a sign of disrespect — it's just the opposite," said the 29-year-old mother, who lives three mausoleums down from the Solimans. "We're here as caretakers of the tombs. Who else would do this?" -

“Both living and dead have populated Norte since it opened in 1884, historians say. A burial site for the nation's rich and famous, the cemetery needed paid caretakers to guard the valuables often sealed with the body inside the mausoleums. Over the decades, Norte's population swelled. More bodies arrived with more caretakers. The living became tolerated in the realm of the dead. In recent years, hordes of illegal squatters drifted to the 135-acre cemetery, moving into mausoleums and camping between tombstones. In a nation where the lack of housing is epidemic, officials had little choice but to look the other way. "The government's policy is not to allow these people to live here," Tablan said. "But realistically, where can we put them? Until we have a solution, we've decided not to touch them at all. That doesn't mean we're happy about it." -

“In Mellie Soliman's living space, her husband nailed up a tin roof to keep out the rain. A towering tree sits to one side of the encampment, with a picture of Jesus nailed to the trunk. In addition to the main crypt, two others sit under the roof. Children sometimes sleep atop the marble edifices. They do their homework there. On social occasions, the family uses the stone slabs as buffet tables. In an adjoining alley lined with crypts, family chickens run and squawk. Cats sleep lazily atop the stones, until they're chased by the Solimans' playful puppies. The only thing the family doesn't use the crypt for is a television stand. "That," Mellie Soliman said, "would be sacrilegious." -

Attitude Towards the Dead Among Those Living in Manila’s Largest Cemetery

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Manila — Sometimes on the hottest nights, when the air inside her shanty barely stirs, Mellie Soliman lays her head on the cool, black marble surface of the living-room crypt and finds relief. Yet the nights are not always restful in this place called Norte. In the quietest hours, spirits emerge. Soliman sees them mostly after midnight, the hour she once found a mother and son standing at her door. "The woman was all white," she said. "She couldn't talk, but motioned that they were thirsty, so I went to get them water. When I came back, they were gone." She explains such apparitions with a near-mystical calm: "There are some here in Norte who have left us but still do not think they are dead." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2006 -]

“Soliman is familiar with the habits of the deceased. The barefoot grandmother and her extended family are among 50,000 poor but stubborn Filipinos who carve out an unorthodox existence in North Manila Cemetery. Each day in Norte is marked by life and death. New family members marry in, old ones die off. Often, as many babies are delivered as people are buried. The children are soon taught respect for the departed, and instructed not to play or make noise near the slow-moving funeral processions. "The dead don't scare me so much," said Soliman, 62. "It's the living I'm afraid of." "Many Filipinos don't use the word 'dead,' " historian Alejandro Roces said. "Rather, they're referred to as 'the departed,' the ones who just happened to go ahead of us. For many, they're seen as just as alive as you and I." -

“Although there are few official records, Hermogenes Soliman says his extended clan of 60 is among the oldest of the graveyard families. Soliman was born in Norte in 1931, and says his parents lived here for years before that. As a boy, he played among the tombstones. When it was time to take a wife, he brought the reluctant Mellie to his graveyard home. At first I was afraid of the spirits," she recalled of that moment 25 years ago, leaning against the pink-rimmed marble crypt where seven relatives lie. "But eventually this place became home."” -

Working in Manila’s Largest Cemetery

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Solimans have worked hard to make life comfortable for their four generations, who live sprinkled across Norte. Like many residents, the 75-year-old Hermogenes Soliman makes his living from the cemetery as a contractor who supervises work — including painting, masonry and clearing brush — on the tombs financed by owner-families. October is a busy month. Laborers scramble to clean up Norte before visitors arrive for the religious holidays. The streets are swept and scoured, mausoleums painted, the legions of orphaned beggar children chased away. The traditional gifts that families leave behind at the graves — cooked meats, apples, oranges and pears — are scavenged by Norte's families. In this graveyard ghetto, such precious sustenance cannot go wasted. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2006 -]

“Year-round, Norte is a thriving city, teeming with commerce. There are makeshift neighborhood kiosks that sell noodles, rice and cellphone cards. Vendors wander the streets peddling ice cream and bottled soda. The cemetery has its own taxi fleet: Drivers line up inside the main gate on motorized scooters, waiting to ferry commuters to their jobs as maids and restaurant workers. There's even a graveyard government. Each sector has a neighborhood chief to impose the law and settle differences between neighbors. -

“Mellie Soliman says the worst things happen outside Norte's gates. Three of her grandsons were killed in recent years working in the Manila slums. The last was 16, slain by a gang of thieves as he sold flowers to gravesite visitors. Now he is buried in the living-room crypt, where his grandmother says she can keep a better eye on him. Norte has its own tensions. The cemetery is divided by class: Although no one pays rent, jobless squatters who do no work are at the bottom of the heap and are shunned. Established families such as the Solimans command respect. -

“City Hall workers and policemen also live here. In one exclusive area, paid caretakers of the gravesite of the family of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — an immense pyramid flanked by marble sphinxes — enjoy air conditioning, cable television and a washer and dryer. Many Norte residents say they do not feel poor. Nor do they worry about disease, despite their proximity to so many corpses. "Look," said Mellie Soliman's daughter-in-law, Carmenita, 41, holding her 1-year-old granddaughter. "Do these children look sick to you? In Tondo, this girl would not survive." -

But Mellie Soliman worries. Recently, corrupt cemetery officials tried to make money by reselling burial space. Workers exhumed dozens of graves to make room for more dead, leaving the reeking coffins in the open. "To leave those bodies there did not respect the dead or the living," she said. Although the cemetery director was fired, the incident has brought new calls to clean up Norte. Officials recently relocated 60 families to a nearby dog cemetery. There's also talk of building a security fence and cutting off power for good. "I liken these people to frogs, which will adapt to any environment — even a frying pan," said Tablan, the city official. "The trick is to turn up the heat. Then they'll jump." Hermogenes Soliman insists he's not leaving — not even after he dies. He pats the large marble crypt, saying it won't be long before he'll join his ancestors there. He finds peace in that. "When I go, this is where they'll put me," he said. "My grandchildren will know right where to find me. That way, they can still take care of me." -

Hanging Coffins of Sagada

Sagada, in northern Luzon, in the Philippine’s Cordillera region, is famous for its “hanging coffins”. Karl Grobl of CNN wrote: “Hanging coffins are an ancient funeral custom in northern Luzon. In several areas, coffins of various shapes can be seen hanging either on beams projecting outward from vertical faces of the mountain, in caves in the face of cliffs, or on natural rock projections. The coffins are quite small due to the fact that the deceased are placed in the fetal position, believing that people should leave the world in the same position as they entered it. The reason they do it is because they want the spirit to go up to Heaven, they believe that if they bury a person the spirit can't go up to Heaven. [Source: Karl Grobl, CNN, May 5, 2012]

In her book 'Making An Exit', a book about how different cultures mourn, Sarah Murray describes taking part in a funeral in Sagada that combines the rites of Christianity with the pre-Christian practice of burying the dead, wrapped in ceremonial blankets and compressed into the fetal position, “in wooden sarcophagi that are left hanging on cliff faces or lodged in the fissures and caverns of Sagada’s jagged forests of stone.” For a moment,[Source: Rachel Newcomb, Washington Post]

Angel Bautista, an archeology student at the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, wrote: For the Kankanaey, the ethnic group to which the people of Sagada belongs, “death is dreadful because it removes a family member physically in a permanent fashion; however, it is also mysterious because it makes possible for the spirit of the dead to continue social connections with the living. Possible reasons why the region practices such belief: one is because of filial piety, another is the belief that the ancestors have the powers which they share to each other and because of their polytheistic view in decomposition of the body and most likely the preservation may last longer than to bury the corpse on the ground. The sudden exposure of the body in the air as soon as it was opened, after years of being inside the coffin, also affects its decay along with the burial materials associated with the corpse. Picpican also noticed that human intervention also caused the body to rot easily. In line with the findings about factors affecting the easy decay of mummies, the best way to preserve these bodies and to keep these dead remain with their riches and prestige is to simply “leave them alone.” [Source: Angel Bautista, University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, March 16, 2013 /*/]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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