In the poorly serviced capital of the Philippines, the poorest citizens have taken to living where no one else will – alongside the dead
by Lynzy Billing in Manila
“I have lived here for 51 years – and I have been trying to leave for 51 years,” says Elvira Miranda. “The government want us gone, and we also want to go. But we need somewhere to go.”
Miranda, 68, has been living with her husband and children in a teetering shanty above a stack of graves in Manila North Cemetery since 1966. It is the kind of situation you might find yourself in if, like Miranda, you’re poor, you have no job and you live in one of the world’s most notoriously crowded cities.
“We keep the cemetery clean … The community has kept to itself,” she says. “Most people here don’t have an income, but we try and find odd jobs to make ends meet. We sell flowers to victims’ families, make headstones or build coffins.”
Manila is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, as migrants from the countryside have poured in seeking better opportunities. On arrival, the majority find little work and nowhere to live except self-built communities.
- Elvira Miranda and the Navotas cemetery, on the Manila coast. Photographs: Lynzy Billing
Some of these slums have developed inside public cemeteries. People sleep in haphazard shanties built on top of graves, or inside mausoleums. It’s free, but there are no basic services such as sanitation, electricity and clean water, let alone adequate shelter.
Cemetery slums have existed here since the 1950s, and generations of families now live in Manila North, the oldest and largest cemetery in the city. An expansive 54 hectares (133 acres), it is home to an estimated 6,000 slum-dwellers from 800 families, as well as one million dead.
Some of the community are caretakers, paid by relatives of the dead to maintain the graves; the fee can be as little as 600 pesos (£9) a year. Other residents own makeshift stores or work as masons, carving headstones for the 80-100 funerals that take place daily.
It is a difficult life, made more so by frequent violent anti-drug raids by the Philippine National Police (PNP); grislier still, some of the graves hold the corpses of the victims of the PNP’s extra-judicial killings. President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed more than 12,000 people since June 2016, and many of the raids take place in cemeteries.
One such raid occurred in Manila North on 3 August last year. Carmelita Bahacan’s son, Irish, was killed. He was 37.
- Ricardo Medina, who lives in the Pasay slum, near his son Ericardo’s grave. Photograph: Lynzy Billing
“That night 50 police came into the cemetery,” she says. “They shot him five times. He was dead after the first shot but they continued shooting.”
Bahacan, 57, who moved to Manila North in 1992, now lives in a shanty built atop the grave of her son.
“I like Irish’s body to be next to me. He is buried in a tomb with my father. Someday soon I will die, and I would like to be buried here also.”
The PNP says crime and drug use are prevalent in cemeteries. “Many slum-dwellers are unemployed, some of them will resort to criminal activities so that they can support their families,” says superintendent Erwin Margarejo of the Manila Police District. “Cemeteries here serve as hideouts for criminals.”
- A funeral takes place in the Navotas slum. Photograph: Lynzy Billing
“There used to be a problem with drugs here, but now people have stopped using,” Bahacan says. “But anti-drug raids still happen every other day, in the evening or early morning hours when it is quiet and dark. They are shooting and killing us inside the cemetery.”
She says a lack of money means they cannot afford to investigate the police shootings. And with no official record of populations living in the big cemeteries – Navotas, Pasay and Manila North and South – the residents remain targets for extra-judicial operations.
Ricardo Medina, 70, also lives near the grave of his son, Ericardo, who was killed by police on 16 November 2016.
- In 1996, Manila North Cemetery residents appealed for a school, washroom and church. Nothing happened. Photograph: Lynzy Billing
“I was watching TV here and I saw Ericardo. His head was wrapped in packaging tape and he had a cardboard sign tied across his chest saying ‘pusher’, but my son is innocent,” Medina says. Ericardo is now buried with Medina’s wife, just a few metres from his house. “I like him close. I like that when I wake up I can see him … I like that I can be the one to care for his grave.”
Medina moved to Pasay cemetery in 1967. Back then, he says, “No one was living here, but look at it now.” In his section alone, there are 50 families. “But there are only two water wells. These are basic services we need.”
He works as an exhumer. Graves in this crowded city are leased for five-year periods; if the family cannot pay, the bones are dug up and incinerated.
- A caretaker in Pasay exhumes a baby – its family can no longer pay to rent the grave space. In Manila most graves exist on a five-year lease. If it is not renewed, the bones are dug up and incinerated or given back to the family. Photographs: Lynzy Billing
“I like living here, the area is quiet. It is free, and my work is good. I can get 50 pesos to dig a baby’s grave, 150 for an adult. There are lots of bodies and so lots of work for me. It allows me to feed my family and helps people. Somebody has to do it.”
Unsurprisingly, he is not squeamish, and while speaking he holds up the hand of a decomposing corpse. “See, it doesn’t matter if we’re black, white, fat or thin, we all turn the same colour after death.
- ‘The government say they want us gone.’ Photograph: Lynzy Billing
“There are no ghosts here. But when I am digging up a corpse I always apologise, and say I am sorry for disturbing you. It is a matter of respect.”
Despite Medina’s claims, living conditions here are far below acceptable standards. In 1996, the residents of Manila North Cemetery appealed to the mayor for a school, washroom facilities and a church.
Nothing has happened, so they now run their own classes for the local children. And while they wait – for housing, for jobs, for justice – they continue to work as masons, caretakers or makers of coffins, headstones and mausoleums.
“The government say they want us gone, but we are doing the jobs no one else will,” Medina says. “We are part of the greater community, caring for their dead.”