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House of the Dead

Manila North Cemetery, opened in 1904, is one of the oldest and largest in the Philippines. Its elaborate mausoleums and endless rows of tombs are home to an estimated one million dead - and a few thousand living. The final resting place of presidents and movie stars, the cemetery is also inhabited by some of Manila's poorest. Many live in the crypts and mausoleums of wealthy families, who pay them to clean and watch over them. Others find different ways to to make money. "There is really no work here so I taught myself how to do this in 2007," says Ferdinand Zapata (39) as he chisels the name of a dead man into an ornate marble headstone. As many as a quarter of Manila's 12 million people are 'informal settlers'. The cemetery offers relative safety compared to the city's dangerous shantytowns. The resourcefulness needed to live a life of such insecurity is on full display here. Across the cemetery families go about their day, chatting, playing cards and watching TV. "Sometimes it's difficult living here," says Jane de Asis, 26, who lives with a son, two sisters, her sisters' children and her mother in a mausoleum. "We don't always have electricity and have no running water. It's especially hard in the summer, when it's so hot." At night, people sleep on the tombs. In this devoutly religious country many see the boundary between the living and the dead as porous. Isidro Gonzalez, 74, likes to talk to his dead mother. "Maybe she can answer me, but so far, she hasn't!"

Electricity is pilfered and running water is rare. At the few public wells, people line up with carts of empty water bottles, waiting to fill them up. Amid all of this, the normal business of a cemetery goes on. On a busy day there can be as many as 80 funerals. Some cemetery residents are paid by visiting families to lead prayers at a grave. The cemetery is so dense with graves that hearses sometimes can't reach their destination. Mourners have to carry the coffin through the jumble of tombs.

Tombs are generally rented for five years. After that, if the relatives stop paying, the cemetery administration will exhume the remains. Discarded bags of skulls and bones are a common sight. People leave snacks, drinks and sometimes cigarettes at their relatives' gravesides. Family members can often be seen there, saying prayers, lighting candles or just chatting.

Residents say that drug use and crime have been on the rise in recent years. Mr. Zapata reckons it started when slum clearances nearby led to a wave of new residents. President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drug dealers and addicts has also been felt at Manila North. In September, three men were killed here in what the police called an anti-drug sting operation; they were said to have been trying to sell $10 worth of shabu, the local methamphetamine.

During the day, new homes are built from modest tombs by adding makeshift concrete walls and roofs of corrugated iron, often scavenged from somewhere else. The dead are a constant presence here, in one way or another. "When there are moments that I hear noises or voices, I just keep quiet, and I know it is the voices of the dead," according to Mrs. Javier (90). Her husband Felix says that ghosts are "just something you see in the movies."

Here and there makeshift stores sell snacks and basic necessities like soap. They also sell candles, for visitors who want to pay their respects at the grave of a loved one. Some of the stalls have karaoke machines, which are popular in the evenings.
As the heat of the day dies away, boys and young men play basketball on improvised courts. Mr. Gonzalez who was hoping to speak to his dead mother at the family crypt also sleeps in the cemetery. But he is not a resident he owns a condominium in Manila. His neighbourhood is more dangerous than the cemetery though and as he puts it "The dead can't harm you."
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