Cradled by the Grave

The Carreta Cemetery, owned by the Church, built-in 1906 is one of the oldest and biggest grave yard in Cebu City Philippines. It houses not only the dead but also the living. An estimated of over 15,000 corpses are buried here and almost 100 families considered this place as home, with both numbers increasing.

According to Philippine Statistics Office, Cebu City has a growing population of 922,611 as of 2015. Carreta Cemetery is located in the heart of the City surrounded by buildings, malls , condominiums and schools.

Here it is common to find families where three generations live together and some are even raising more than two children. Without proper education and a stable job, it is hard to imagine how people living inside strive.

The Abigana family eating their dinner together with the grandmother, father and grand children.

“The dead have helped us more than the living” – Ellisa

There is no rent and you can tap illegally for electricity. In the past few years, the cemetery has its own water supply intended for the visitors but the management decided to cut off the supply after seeing that people living here utilized it for daily consumption. Both the cemetery and the families inside buy water outside for 5 pesos per gallon.

The Paterno family sleeping inside the Mausoleum

With no proper toilet, the people living inside the cemetery dispose of their human waste in vacant areas.

a boy defecates in a vacant lot inside the cemetery

“As long as someone dies we will always find a way to live” – Tata

In a week, around 7 to 10 bodies are buried here which is why it is considered as one of the busiest cemeteries in Cebu City.  It is during burials that people earn. Men work by carrying the coffin, putting it inside the tomb and cementing the cover for 30 to 50 pesos. While the ladies sell beverages, cigarettes, candles, and chips on a make shift store

2 men assists the relatives place the coffin inside the tomb

Some relatives commission people living inside the cemetery to take care of the grave sites and mausoleums of their loved ones for a negotiated price of 30  to 200 pesos a month, but despite the agreement some refuse to pay.

A corpse of 5 years has to be exhumed and transferred to private areas where it can stay permanently. Relatives hire them to dig out bones inside the tomb for 20 to 30 pesos.

Kids benefit from Filipino’s strong belief that food brought inside the cemetery should not be brought back home. The children wait for extra packed lunch or snacks prepared for people who attend burial ceremonies. This food are referred to as “tawiwit” 

Oftentimes these children are seen crowding the area while waiting for the burial ceremony to end to ask for tawiwit. This practice has been going on for a very long time that even the parents of these children has been practicing this during their childhood.

It is already an acceptable culture inside the cemetery, some parents even instruct their kids to beg for snacks.

kids eating their Tawiwit

Scraping candle wax is also a way of earning money for children and women by selling it to candle makers inside the cemetery. A kilo of used wax costs 20 to 25 pesos.

Mary Grace who suffered a miscarriage of her twins just 4 days ago is back to scraping candle wax

“Be afraid of the living not the dead” – Encarnacion

Despite the stigma of horror that a cemetery has, only a few shared scary stories. Most of them claimed that they have never seen or felt ghosts or spirits. An old woman shared, they are more fearful of what the living are capable of doing than the dead. 

Aside from poverty, people have different reasons why they chose to live inside the cemetery, some were born here, others got nowhere to go, and a few left their town to escape from something. It is rumored that criminals hide in this place to avoid getting caught.

a man sniffing methamphetamine inside a tomb

In order for them to survive, others resort to illegal measures. A few people inside the cemetery reported that some men dig graves with valuables buried together with the body.

Tombstones made up of marble are stolen, ground layer by layer until the name of the owner is no longer visible. These are then sold to an amount of 300 pesos while purchasing a new one costs 1000 to 3000 pesos.

A man grinds the details of the tombstone

“They were given help from different organizations including private and government, but most of them still chose to comeback”

The caretaker of the cemetery since 2008 expressed that people living inside received help from organizations for their education, employment, and settlement. Relocation sites were donated to them, but they come up with different reasons not to move out from the cemetery saying that life inside the cemetery is far better and safer compared to what awaits them in the relocation sites offered.

Some were given work as laundry women or construction workers, by individuals or organizations but most quit their jobs, citing too much labor for less compensation and not being used to working eight hours a day.

a group of friends drinks beer after receiving payment
Past 9:00 am and a lot of people are still seen sleeping above the tomb

The cemetery is located near several public schools, but some parents expressed that their children chose not to go back to school after being bullied and made fun of for residing inside the cemetery. Despite their status, some parents were able to let their children finish their studies through hard work and some were provided with scholarships by different organizations.

A young boy walks above several tombs on his way home after attending his graduation ceremony

In 2012, a Non Government Organization built a day care school inside a Mausoleum to help the families inside the cemetery, the mausoleum was made into a little classroom with teaching materials that can accommodate 20 to 30 students. A donation of 30 pesos per month from parents serves as the tuition fee.

children praying before the class starts

“They are very aggressive and hostile when they are asked to move out of the cemetery”

The church has been planning for some time to clear the grave yard from illegal settlers, but has always been unsuccessful since many individuals living here showed resistance claiming they have been in the cemetery for very long time even their grandfathers live here.

Some organizations opposed the said evacuation plan, insisting a humanitarian appeal believing that it is okay to let these people stay, stating that the priority is to help the living and that there is not much we can do to help the dead.

an opened coffin left along the pathway inside the cemetery

Many visitors expressed negative comments saying that they don’t feel safe and cannot focus on the burial ceremony because of children playing around and begging while they are praying. Trashes including human and animal wastes are scattered around the graves.

“Nobody wants to live inside the cemetery, including us” – Paterno

Paterno, 74 years old started to live inside Carreta cemetery when he was still 8. He expressed that nobody wants to live here and that they are always willing to leave if the church or the government forces them to. It’s just that everybody here has nowhere to go, has no money and proper education to survive outside, and that this is the best place for them where they can stay temporarily.

For the caretaker of the cemetery who has observed the people living here since 2008, poverty may have led the people to live here but there is a deeper reason as to why they chose to stay despite the help provided for them to start a new life outside the cemetery.

He states that families living inside are like people who are prisoners with an open cage, yet they chose to stay. For him, the comfort of being used to the difficulty inside and the fear of living outside are the reasons why people are hesitant to leave.