THE PHILIPPINES : Dancing with Death 

DANCING WITH THE DEAD

High Spirits in Manila​

 

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier


One of the weirdest cemeteries in the world lies in Manila, capital of the Philippines. It’s a city built for the dead, complete with mansions, gardens and streets.

Here, the relatives of the departed throw parties, have picnics and dance on the graves of their loved ones – they are, after all, still alive and richer too if they inherited a tidy sum.

Armed sentries usually guard the gates, but ERIC PASQUIER was waved through. He was the first ever photographer to enter where high spirits prevail.

The merriest and most extraordinary cemetery has to be in Manila – in 50 hectares of it, to be exact.

It’s a town within a town, a golden place in the very heart of the poverty-stricken capital of the Philippines: the Living City of the Dead.
Here the dead have country houses as their final resting place.

Grandchildren give parties around the tombs of their grandparents. The living literally dances on the graves of the dead here – a way of letting the dead take part in the fun of life, and to thank them for leaving them money.

 

In the Living City of the Dead, mausoleums look like country houses where large parties are held, some lasting whole weekends. All the dead here were multi-millionaires who made their fortunes in a large variety of businesses: property, insurance, concrete, pasta or tobacco. Their grateful descendants, who inherited these fortunes, make the mausoleums as attractive as possible “out of love and gratitude for the inheritance.”

They think that the huge sums of money which are spent as offerings will ensure them success in business and private matters, thus emulating their dead ancestors.High outer walls protect the cemetery, and guards keep watch at the gate. When you have managed to go through the gate, you discover a huge residential area with fresh gardens, wide avenues along which you will find sumptuous marble dwellings, in sharp contrast to the filth and slums outside these walls. 

Each mausoleum is watched over by fierce doorkeepers, but as soon as you have stepped across the threshold, you will hear disco music blaring loudly from inside. The grandchildren of a former property magnate are evidently enjoying themselves around the grave of granddad, eating and drinking. “The dead too must have fun,” they say.

 

The portrait of this property magnate hangs above his grave and shows a serene face. Fernando Amorsolo, the Philippine answer to Michelangelo, painted it, as he did for all the dead dwellers here in this bizarre ‘city’. Sometimes, the dead have been buried with their wives, who are then also immortalised by the master. Each vault contains its rosewood furniture, its Ming vases or other valuable items, compelling guards to patrol the cemetery night and day. Men are buried with their jewels, women with pearls in their mouths. An easy target for grave robbers.

 

Seven hundred people in total maintain this place and drive or ride the paths strewn with flowers. Many shops sell fizzy drinks, candles and ‘kims’ (forged banknotes) that are burnt on altars “for the dead to have money in the hereafter.” 

Thirty years ago, this cemetery still lay quietly in the countryside. Today, Manila has sprawled outwards and encircled it. As a result, the prices of the grave plots have risen sharply, equalling those of entire villas in the area. If, after 25 years, it has become too expensive for the family of the property magnate to pay for his grave, his mausoleum will be pulled down to make room for another rich man. 

 

Today, ultramodern concrete buildings are erected close to summer palaces. ‘Mr Marlboro’, who made a fortune with his franchise to sell the well-known cigarettes to the Philippines, is one of the newest dwellers in this City of the Living Dead. Some of the richest mausoleums have Carrara marble swimming pools where young children like to paddle. “Isn’t it the best way of giving fun to the deceased?” 

 

One of the most striking mausoleums is that of the importer of Wrangler jeans. It looks like a real second home, with two storeys, a bar, bathrooms, bedrooms, a television, a telephone and even a cook to prepare Peking duck – a dish to which the dead man was partial. In the mausoleum in which the ‘king of pasta’ is buried, people regularly eat pasta, with many waiters around. Elsewhere, children use the tortoise-shelled graves to practise skateboarding. Somehow it isn’t surprising to find letterboxes here – they are for water bills, electricity bills, telephone bills… 

 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier

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