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The Beverly Hills of the dead

  • Published at 07:43 pm October 1st, 2016
The Beverly Hills of the dead

A cemetery is probably the last place many people would consider putting on their must-see list.

Cemeteries are actually interesting studies in themselves of how the dead are memorialised. Funerary architecture and adornments reflect facets of culture and custom. Personal touches and details on tombs additionally show how people choose to honour their departed loved ones.

In the Philippines, a visit to the Manila Chinese Cemetery offers a fascinating look into Chinese cultural viewpoint on death and the afterlife. Located in a northern suburb of Manila is one of the most unique and grandiose cemeteries in the world. Walk into the Manila Chinese Cemetery in the Filipino capital and you might think you are visiting a residential suburb

A walking tour along the quiet and narrow streets of the Manila Chinese Cemetery is like listening to stories retold by the decorated tombs, elaborate mausoleums, and intricately-carved memorial sculptures. Aside from being morbid-curiosity tour that one would usually expect when exploring old graveyards, touring the Manila Chinese Cemetery is also a cultural, historical and an architectural tour.

Being an active burial ground since the Spanish times, the cemetery has been transformed into a city-like landscape with architectural structures representing styles from the19th century revivalist to the pre-war art deco movement to modern and contemporary design-themes.

I was told by someone of a cemetery located in Manila where the dead have better houses than the living. He was right. Most of these “homes” have their own fully-functioning kitchens, bathrooms and even bedrooms where relatives can sleep alongside their buried relatives. In some cases, they live amongst the dead full-time.

Welcome to the Chinese Cemetery of Manila, a neighbourhood all of its own, originally established when the Chinese trading community were prohibited by Spanish colonials from using the Catholic cemeteries. Forced to create their own, it is a unique place where wealthy Chinese families have built little mansions around the graves of their loved ones since the 19th century, to make sure they feel comfortable even in the afterlife.

The Chinese hold great respect their departed ones and since ancient times, they have believed that the souls of the dead live in another world and graves are their earthly residences. If the family can afford it, these earthly residences can be built up to three stories high.

It has become tradition for the living to spend entire days visiting the deceased, installing household amenities such as TV sets, couches and flushing toilets inside the tombs.

Many of them are not only furnished but have all the amenities of the average home: hot and cold running water, flushing toilets, electricity, kitchens, dining areas and even guest rooms. The most luxurious often have ornate gardens and balconies. It's customary on Sundays and particularly on All Saints Day for families to spend time in these mausoleum homes; preparing meals, feasting, drinking and playing mahjong (leaving an empty chair for the deceased).

However the cemetery as a whole has admittedly seen better days and even some of the most lavish mausoleums are now looking neglected. The graveyard is owned by the Manila city government, which has allegedly initiated an expansion program to build more “apartment tombs” and a crematorium.

This was the site of heavy fighting and executions during World War II, and there are several memorials, as well as a mass grave, to commemorate those events. The Chinese here bury their babies separately from the family graves, and the wall where babies are buried makes for a sad read. There are alleys with rental tomb space, there are tomb houses with trees growing straight through the roof, there are old tombs with stone turtles - symbol of longevity. I even saw several tombs where the man and wife were already buried - but where a third space was still open, reserved for the lover of the man. Every tomb is unique, each has its story to tell, and you can easily spend a lot of time exploring this fascinating place.

The one-of-a-kind cemetery has become a curious tourist attraction of sorts, and you can hire professional guides to take you on a tour through Manila’s vast city of the dead to see the most interesting tombs, or pay the caretaker around 200 pesos to make sure you don’t get lost.

Like in allsocieties, there are wealthier and poorer areas of the cemetery’s community. Smaller and less well-maintained graves are usually grouped together down narrow alleyways further from the entrance gates.

The writer is Faculty & Coordinator, School of Business, University of South Asia