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In pictures: A grave situation

Manila North is one of the oldest and largest public cemeteries in the capital of the Philippines. Originally built as a final resting place for the affluent families of the city, it is now better known for its thriving population of the living. An estimated 7,000 people have colonised the cemetery and transformed it into a city within a city.

In Delayed Gratification #18, we ran a story about Manila North and one of the families that calls it home. Here are some of the photos from the article, and the stories behind them.


A cot is suspended in mid-air inside a mausoleum that doubles up as a family home. For the residents of Manila North, life is surprisingly ordinary. Mausoleums are not cold reminders of the departed but practical and often inventive family homes. Numerous shops in different burial ground neighbourhoods stock all the necessities, from toilet paper to fresh vegetables. Freelance beauticians offer manicures and haircuts. ‘Jumpers’, entrepreneurial young electricians, scramble across mausoleum rooftops rerouting power lines to provide paying residents with electricity.



A large proportion of the population of Manila North work as caretakers, a term for live-in families who occupy the mausoleums dotted throughout the cemetery. With the permission of the families who own each plot, residents tread a fine line between maintaining these mausoleums as respectful places for the dead and functional homes for the living. Their main source of income is an annual caretaking stipend from their machantes (mausoleum owners). The fee varies depending on mausoleum size but is usually between 600 pesos (£9) and 2,000 pesos (£30) a year per mausoleum. To add to their income, residents track the arrivals of funerals or new visitors in the hope of extra paid work, in the form of grave-digging, mausoleum construction or even exhuming bodies. There is a well-used phrase in the cemetery to describe this kind of work: ‘hanap patay’. A play on the Tagalog word for ‘livelihood’, literally translated it means “searching for death”.



A Dunkin’ Donuts is set up on the roadside in North Manila on the night before All Saints’ Day. On this day, families visit the graves of their loved ones to celebrate their lives and pay their respects. As one of the biggest cemeteries in the city, Manila North sees an enormous influx of people. Last year it was estimated that two million people walked through the cemetery gates over the holiday weekend. The religious and social significance of the holiday means that caretakers have their work cut out for them. It’s a mark of status to keep a family mausoleum well-maintained, so in the weeks leading up to All Saints’ Day, residents spend hours scrubbing and sanding, hiding a year’s worth of neglect under a fresh lick of paint. It’s a real opportunity for them to increase their chances of receiving a good tip, or even find new machantes to work for.

We hope you enjoyed this extract from ‘A grave situation’, published in DG #18. To read the full feature, you can buy the issue in our shop.

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