Living among the dead in the Philippines

Mercedes Silva let out a hearty laugh when told that she must be very proud to have neighbours that include former Philippine presidents, big-time businessmen and other national celebrities. ( dpa )

But the 56-year-old Silva became serious when she pondered the future of her three grandchildren, all still of pre-school age.

"I don't know what future awaits them," she said, her gaze wandering to rows and rows of whitened sepulchers in front of what she calls her home - a four-square-metre concrete mausoleum inside the North Cemetery in Manila.

The mausoleum is located near the tombs of late Philippine presidents Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay; popular actor Fernando Poe Junior, who ran for president but lost to incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004; and noted nationalist-politician Claro M Recto.

On the farthest end of the mausoleum, which has been Silva's house for more than a decade, is a television and a small radio-stereo set; on one side is a sofa-bed and across it is the dining table - which is actually a tomb.

Silva said she gets electricity through an illegal connection to a lamp post near the mausoleum, where six members of a landed family are buried.

"The relatives of the dead allowed me to live here," she said. "In exchange, I see to it the place and its surroundings are always kept clean."

There are more than 5,000 people living with the dead inside the 54-hectares North Cemetery, one of the oldest and biggest burial grounds in Manila.

Some of the residents, like Silva, are lucky to live inside concrete mausoleums owned by wealthy families. Others just put up shanties from scrap wood, iron sheets and cardboards on top of shelves of graves.

For Silva, the cemetery has been home since she was one year old when her parents moved in from the northern province of Pampanga in the early 1950s. She gave birth to all three of her daughters and raised them while residing in the cemetery.

"It's not only a question of shelter, but also access to job opportunities," Silva said. "Maybe we can find a decent house in the province, but how will we survive, what are we going to do to earn?"

The Philippine government continues to struggle to provide decent shelter to its burgeoning population, which grows at an annual rate of over 2 per cent.

But with slum areas in metropolitan Manila already bursting at their seams, people like Silva invaded the land of the dead in order to stay alive.

Most of the residents of the North Cemetery earn their living keeping the sepulchers clean, but with the unabated increase of people living in the cemetery and the spiraling prices of basic commodities, their earnings can barely feed them.

Loida Ventura, a 50-year-old widow and mother of two, said she augments her income by doing laundry for a family living in a nearby residential area.

"We are all hoping that one day, our children or our grandchildren would be able to find a better life and not experience the hardships we have experienced here," she said. "But there seems to be no hope for us."

Ventura resides in another mausoleum without electricity and shares it with three other families.

She and her late husband were forced to live in the North Cemetery in 1985 when they were unable to find work and affordable housing in Manila after relocating from the impoverished central island of Negros.

"During my first three months here, I could hardly sleep," she said. "The thought of sleeping among the dead gave me goose bumps, but eventually I learned to live with it."

One of Ventura's children, 25-year-old Christopher, admitted that life was getting more difficult inside the cemetery.

Christopher, who has two children of his own, drives a pedicab for hire inside the cemetery.

"Sometimes I earn 40 pesos (0.88 dollars) a day, sometimes 30 pesos," he said. "We're lucky if we get a job as a grave digger, then we earn 1,500 pesos for the work."

Christopher said the cemetery has become very dangerous at night.

"It's not because of ghosts," he smiled. "It's because there are so many criminals, drug addicts seeking sanctuary here."

Adding to the woes of the residents is the apathy of the local government to their plight. There are no basic services. They get their water from private underground wells, and basic sanitation is absent.

"The government wants us out of here, so officials do not provide us with basic services," Mercedes Silva said. "In fact, there have been several attempts during the past years to evict us, but we always come back."

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