• A child plays with a kite in Pasay City Cemetery. (SBS Dateline)
Could you live and work with the dead? Dateline travels to the Philippines to meet the unique communities who live in cemeteries and care for its dead.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 21:30

School classes held inside a mausoleum, kids flying kites and playing basketball in between graves, families sleeping on top of tombs and spending their days among the dead. This is a typical day for people who live in public cemeteries across the Philippines.

These communities exist in cemeteries all across the country, where the residents serve as the caretakers for the dead, in exchange for a place to call home.

“At first I was afraid, but as time went by I got used to it,” Celia Garcia tells reporter Joel Tozer, in this week’s Dateline.

Celia has lived in Pasay City Cemetery for 10 years, in a home positioned around several grave sites. She has a kitchen, bathroom and space for pet dogs – she sleeps on a foam mattress on top of a tomb. Like many other residents, Celia taps the cemetery’s main power source for electricity, so she can use lights and a TV. She earns a wage by cleaning the graves she lives around – an arrangement many of her neighbors have as well.

For many of the Filipinos living in cemeteries, it is a welcome alternative to living in overcrowded slums, where conditions are often worse.

Tondo, located near a port and industrial section of the Filipino capital Manila, is the city’s largest slum and is one of the most densely populated places in the world. More than 600,000 people live there – it’s the biggest district in Manila. The slum is covered in garbage, and many of the people there make a living by doing their best to collect it, or rummage through it looking for materials that can be resold.

While cemeteries may be a preferable option for poorer Filipinos looking for somewhere to live, authorities don’t want them there.

“We can’t stop 300 families who steal electricity and water from us,” says Christina Tuason, a manager at Pasay. “The truth is, we don’t condone them living here. We don’t like them living here, not because we don’t like them, but because it’s not fair. This is a cemetery.”

“It is a real pity that there are young children sleeping with their backs touching a tomb. They are prone to sickness and germs. They are not safe here.”

Celia has been told she’ll have to move on, but not given any information about when. “We were told that we will be evicted, that there will be a relocation but we don’t know where it will be or when we are going to be evicted,” she says.

But despite the city’s misgivings, people have been living here for decades, not just in Pasay but in cemeteries all over the country. Manila North Cemetery is estimated to have between 6,000 and 10,000 residents, who have raised families, started small businesses and formed communities there. Squatting, whether in cemeteries or elsewhere, is not unusual in Filipino culture – its’ estimated that a quarter of Manila’s 12 million people are ‘informal settlers’.

In places like Pasay Cemetery, many residents have become important to the daily operation of the cemetery.

While Dateline was at Pasay, two residents went about their job as gravediggers. Ralph and Rey battled Manila’s monsoon rains for two days to dig a burial plot – but first had to exhume the body of a young girl already buried there. Pasay cemetery is at full capacity, so graves here are recycled. Plots have a five year lease, and if the family cannot afford to pay beyond that the body is removed to make way for a new one.

Digging through the mud in their bare hands Rey and Ralph collect the bones and place them in a hessian sack which they will return to the family – “there’s the brain,” someone says, as Rey moves the skull.

Only 30 minutes after the body is removed, the next funeral procession begins and a new body is buried in the same grave. Ralph says he’s unmoved emotionally by the work; “I don’t feel anything. You should be afraid of the living, not the dead.”

“I’m not afraid,” says a young boy playing nearby. “Because they are people too.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


The Intern Diaries: Living with the Dead
In Manila impoverished Filipino families are moving away from the slums to live alongside the dead in graveyards.
Making a life amongst the dead
Inside this Filipino cemetery, Dateline reporter Joel Tozer meets a community who have turned tombs into couches, beds and TV stands, and find out why they live there.
Living in the city of the dead
In a sprawling Cairo neighbourhood known as the City of the Dead, life and death are side by side.
Housing the dead: what happens when a city runs out of space?
What happens as the number of deaths increases and burial spaces run out?
Losing the plot: death is permanent, but your grave isn't
Grave recycling is often driven by economic imperatives rather than purely spatial concerns.


Reporter: Joel Tozer

Producer: Ana Maria Quinn

Camera: Benjamin Emery

Fixer: Jinky Jorgio

Editor: Simon Phegan


At first glance, this place looks like a normal community. Shops are opening up for the day, people are getting ready for work and kids are walking to school.

TITA VILLAROSA, RESIDENT MANILA NORTH CEMETERY:  We start our school at 8:30 in the morning, they are just 2 years old to 4 years old.

It is a journey these siblings make two days a week with their grandma. But nothing is normal about where they live or where they are going. These kids attend school in the neighbour tomb.

TITA VILLAROSA:  We were able to borrow this place… a mausoleum with the dead. In school we teach them how to read, how to write.

REPORTER:  They are learning next to a tomb?

TITA VILLAROSA:  Yes, they don’t mind that…the tombs, they were born here inside the cemetery. They are raised here, this school is exclusively for them and so that’s after a year, when they are allowed to go to school, they are ready.

This sprawling cemetery is the final resting place of Filipino presidents and celebrities. In its endless rows of tombs are the bodies of more than a million of Manila's dead, but thousands of its living choose to live here as well. There are communities, just like this one, all across the Philippines.

The first thing you notice at Pasay City cemetery is the kids.

BOY (Translation): Put one here, here. It’s on the other side. Not that side, turn it over. I will fly it. Put this on first. No insert this first – like this.

It is a playground, a workplace and around 300 families happily call this cemetery home. Residents carry out their daily chores, while streams of grieving families pass by to bury their loved ones. Celia Garcia has called a tomb home for the past 10 years.

REPORTER:  Joel. Thanks for having me. This is your home?


Seeing Celia's home is a surprise. Celia's house is spread across three different grave sites, which is bigger than most others around here.

CELIA GARCIA:   This is my kitchen…

REPORTER:  This is where you make your food?

CELIA GARCIA:  And this is my table and this is my house, where to sleep.

REPORTER:  This is where you sleep with your grandson, on top of the tomb?


REPORTER:  Is there a mattress on top of the tomb?

CELIA GARCIA: I have my foam.

REPORTER:  You have like a foam you put on top?


REPORTER:  Do you ever get worried about sleeping on top of the tomb?


It was love that brought Celia to the cemetery, her husband to be already lived and worked here so she moved in.

CELIA GARCIA:  When I met him, I was working there outside of the cemetery, as a server in a food stall or rather a restaurant, there I met him there. My husband was a caretaker of the office, that's why I'm here living, he brought me.  At first I was afraid, but as time went by I got used to it.

Living here isn't allowed, but the authorities turn a blind eye to the residents.

REPORTER:  And you have got a TV and how do you get electricity in here?

CELIA GARCIA:  It’s a kind of “jumper”.

Celia steals power, but it is the only way to get electricity. It is not uncommon for the residents to tap into the cemetery's wires to supply power to their homes. Celia buried her husband more than two decades ago at a nearby cemetery. Now, she helps care for her family by earning a small wage cleaning the graves she lives o, a common job for a lot of people who live here. But for her and many others in Pasay cemetery the future is always uncertain.

CELIA GARCIA (Translation):  We were told that we will be evicted, that there will be a relocation but we don't know where it will be or when we are going to be evicted because this is a place for the living but for the dead.

But, for now, daily life and death continues hand in hand. A short distance from Celia's home, two residents have just started work for the day.

REY, GRAVEDIGGER (Translation):  Two heads… on the other side - look at it.  I buried this here.

Rey and Ralph have been working on this site in the mud for two days. This is not just a grave being dug. It is an eviction of a young girl. Not only can the living be thrown out, so can the dead.

RALPH, GRAVEDIGGER (Translation): We are digging so we can collect the bones so we can show them to the family.

Graves at this cemetery have a 5-year lease. Many families cannot afford to pay beyond that, so the bones are removed, making way for a new body. Filipinos favour burial over cremation. Some locals tell me they believe it is like a second death.

REY (Translation): They were even poorer than us.

Pasay is at capacity for burials, so here they recycle the graves.

REY (Translation): There’s the brain.

RALPH (Translation):   That’s too heavy.

The bones will be placed in a bag ready for the family to collect.

REY (Translation): Don’t touch this area.

RALPH (Translation):   Why?

Shifting through the mud with their bare hands, an important part of their job is to make sure to leave nothing behind.

REY (Translation): Who is this?

RALPH (Translation):   She’s a girl.  Put it in the sack.

This hard work earns Rey and Ralph around 500 pesos per grave, that is around $12 Australian.

REPORTER:  How do you feel when you see the bones?

RALPH (Translation):  Nothing. I don't feel anything. You should be afraid of the living, not the dead. The only difficult thing is when you are cursed by the spirits. Sometimes, you are just walking, you can just feel the presence and you feel coldness around you.  Even if it is hot you feel some coldness.

REPORTER:  If that happens, what do you do?

RALPH (Translation):  Just say a short prayer, so you can pass by.

As they dig the grave, the cemetery children aren't distracted from their game. They show a surprising maturity about death.

REPORTER:  Do get scared watching things like that?

BOY (Translation):  No, I’m not afraid.

REPORTER:  Why not?

BOY (Translation):  Because they are people too.

Just 30 minutes after the girl's bones are removed, the same grave is ready for someone else. So why do people choose to live in cemeteries? For many families, it is a choice between life in the slums or life in the cemetery.

This slum is Tondo. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. This slum is one of the oldest communities in Manila. People here mostly make a living collecting garbage. Seeing the conditions here, you can understand why some people choose to live amongst the dead. But it is not a choice that the local government is happy with. The majority of these cemeteries are owned by them. I take a trip back to Pasay cemetery to ask the local authorities how they feel about the cemetery dwellers.

REPORTER:  Hi, Christina. Joel.


REPORTER:  Thanks for having us.

Christina's office sits on top of the cemetery's crematorium. She works with a small team who oversee more than 30,000 graves and tombs.

CHRISTINA TUASON (Translation):  We can't stop 300 families who steal electricity and water from us. We cannot do anything about that. The truth is we don't condone them living here.  We don’t like them living here, not because we don't like them, but because it's not fair, this is a cemetery.

Christina can't confirm if people like Celia will be allowed to stay here, but she believes a life outside the cemetery would be the best thing for everyone.

CHRISTINA TUASON (Translation):  If I have a choice to help them not to live here, I will do it. So they won't live here. Because it is a real pity that there are young children sleeping with the back touching the tomb. They are prone to sickness and germs, they are not safe here.

Despite the city's misgivings people have been living in graveyards for decades. Ricardo Medina has lived here for 50 years. He shares his home with his third wife, Resurrection. He's raised all of his children in this ramshackle house, wedged between two apartment-style tombs.

REPORTER:   And you live here with your children?

RICARDO MEDINA, RESIDENT AND CARETAKER (Translation):   Yes, I was with them.

REPORTER:  How many children?

RICARDO MEDINA (Translation):   Just a few…18!

REPORTER:  18, wow! And all 18 live here with you?

RICARDO MEDINA (Translation):   They have their own families.

Ricardo leads me to a grave he purchased for himself. Inside are the bones of his first wife Yolanda, but there is someone else lying in here, someone he should never had to bury.

REPORTER:  This is your son's grave? And can you tell me what happened to your son?

RICARDO MEDINA (Translation):   He was killed. He had a tattoo here, I saw it on TV. There was news and when I looked at it I said, “That is my son. Yes, it really is my son.”

Ricardo says he doesn't know who killed his son or why. But his death bore all the hallmarks of a vigilante killing, as part of President Duterte's war on drugs.

RICARDO MEDINA (Translation): We saw him with the tape on his head and he was gone. There were stab wound on his neck, not from gunshots.

REPORTER:   Shot?  Stabbed?

RICARDO MEDINA (Translation):   If it is a gunshot, just one shot and you are dead. Two stabbings, that hurts and with an ice pick, that hurts.  Be that as it may, I fixed it, I gave him a decent burial to pay our last respects.  I’m ready to go to heaven. But I wish my family hadn’t died before me.

Families here spend birthdays and anniversaries with their dead, often staying for hours, even days. But being rich or poor will determine where your bones are laid to rest. In private cemeteries wealthy families also stay close to their dead, but do it in opulent luxury and here there are no squatters. I am here to meet a sacral architect who designs mausoleums.

MICHAEL ADRIANO, SACRAL ARCHITECT (Translation): The Filipinos usually give their respect to the dead by offering a nice resting place.  If they see their dead ones in a nice place, it gives them the relief they need to accept what has happened.

Michael Adriano designs mausoleums that offer not only a resting police, but often a kitchen, toilet, bedroom and entertaining area for visiting family.

MICHAEL ADRIANO:  Here is my latest design.


MICHAEL ADRIANO:  My most recent project.

REPORTER:  This is what the final project will look like?


REPORTER:  Can we have a look inside?



MICHAEL ADRIANO:   You can see the functioning area of the family. There is a small kitchenet here and BBQ grill.

REPORTER:  It is massive.


REPORTER:  I think it is bigger than my home.

MICHAEL ADRIANO:  Really!  Thank you.

Michael's designs show how comfortable Filipinos are with death. In some ways, it makes sense why many aren't disturbed by the idea of people living amongst the dead.

MICHAEL ADRIANO (Translation):   Actually, all people are equal in God when we die. There is no rich, there is no poor, whatever good deeds we do for God that is the most important thing.  But in reality your status still counts, whether you belong to the poor, middle, or rich family.

I expected life in a cemetery to be macabre and sad, but despite the uncertainties here, people have made a warm, welcoming community. They make the most of where life begins and where it ends. As night falls, I make my way to a home famous for a Filipino pastime.

REPORTER:  Hi, Daniel. Nice to meet you. Can we have a look at your home?

DANIEL PANGILINAN, RESIDENT AND CARETAKER:  Please come to my house. Come in.

REPORTER:  Thank you.

Daniel is 67 years old, another long-time resident like Riccardo. He's lived here since he was 12.

REPORTER:  This is your wife?


Daniel says that he knew the people buried in his home. He buried them himself.

DANIEL PANGILINAN (Translation): That one, "Nena" she was really the one who told me, since this place is really theirs, to look after them, She would tell me "Daniel, whatever happens, do not abandon my place". “You will guard this.”

He is keeping the promise to guard their graves in his own special way. Just like many others who live here, Daniel tells me he will one day be buried in this cemetery. He likes to think that his spirit will keep his family here company.

DANIEL PANGILINAN:  Thank you. Thank you very much.

joel tozer

story producer
ana maria quinn

benjamin emery

jinky jorgio

story editor
simon phegan

ronald manila

31st October 2017