What first brought me to the gates of Manila North Cemetery was the promise of ghost stories.  I’ve always been a lover of folklore and the supernatural, and I’ve always been drawn to the country I was born in.  So what better place to learn about the Philippines’ rich mythological history than in a cemetery?

In our initial, get-to-know-you interviews, we never missed a chance to ask about ghosts or any unusual encounters.  But the more time we spent with people, and the more the walls of mutual guardedness broke down, I realized that ghost tales were just shadowy figments of the cemetery’s story.

Everyday routines became more telling than folk tales, because in Manila North Cemetery, the everyday is comprised of funerals and exhumations.  The contrast between normalcy amidst the macabre… of kids playing basketball in between school and burials… of mothers cooking dinner atop gravestones… of families sleeping atop crypts… is what makes the community so intriguing and their status in wider Philippine society particularly troubling. 

Luz Rafon, one of the caretakers of the Roxas gravesite, said, “There are no ghosts.  The only ghosts here are alive.”

What she said chilled me to the core.  So our focus shifted… to the living population of Manila North Cemetery. 

We could have pursued the investigative journalistic angle, our cameras bent on documenting a sensationalist expose.  When we he first heard rumblings of an eviction, I was sure this was the story to follow.  Our crew prepared to confront City of Manila officials as they tore down the makeshift houses, to be there to witness the residents’ sudden homelessness.   

But what unfolded was a more subtle, cathartic narrative.  Conflict occurred in their introspection, when the camera lens became a mirror for how they perceived themselves, rather than in confrontation with authorities.  We found out that eviction attempts at the graveyard occur as regularly as holidays.  Some are forced out; others are allowed to stay but made to remove any semblances of shelter.  On one hand, residents become accustomed to it.  On the other, constant demolitions cause persistent dispossession.  Residents’ sense of home and self-identity are threatened as well as their actual houses.  The bodies of the deceased poor lack permanent resting places.  The same can be said of those who are still alive. 

In the end, we went for a cinema vérité aesthetic, in the hopes of presenting an existential quandary that is not easily answered by the people experiencing it or solved by the viewers observing it.  We explore main three questions:

First, why do people live in a graveyard?

Second, how do people live in a graveyard?

The last question is by far the most ambivalent.  Should people live in a graveyard?  Even in a developing country? 

We eventually discovered that the greatest threat residents face is disease, something that challenges views on mortality and death most acutely. The cycle of life is never more sharply felt than in a cemetery, where people can go too quickly from the cradle to the grave.  Children who were born the cemetery will often die there before they get a chance to leave and try out a different life.  Not only are outside forces pushing the residents out of the cemetery… but their own bodies are also demanding that they go.  They are being driven, literally, from the inside.

We want audiences to be both intrigued by the lengths caretakers are willing to go to support their families and inspired by the compassion they possess, even in the face of extreme sacrifice.  We want people to feel the residents’ existential crisis as if it were they who must make that choice of whether or not to live amongst the dead.

For better or worse, this community is dying.  Is that a good or a bad thing?  Should they depart, lest they become the departed?


Director’s Statement by Jeanie Duque Dizon

© 2012 Death of a Cemetery ❘ Empyreal Productions