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Public Cemeteries in the Philippines

20 August 2011

It is pure coincidence that I am following a piece on cemeteries, which made me all giddy excited, with one on the same subject which fills me with sadness-slash-anger and yes, shame.

Working on a “document search” project for a US-based client, I found myself on the hunt for a woman who died in 1962, buried in “Caloocan Cemetery”.  I eliminated the 6 other cemeteries in Caloocan, and targeted Sangandaan Public Cemetery as my destination.  I traversed the length of EDSA, circled Monumento and crawled through the densely populated Samson Road.  The PNR Hospital which I remember seeing as a child is now a derelict building and the railroad tracks nearby have been cemented over.  The cemetery was beside a public market not far from the old railroad tracks.  The gate opened into a driveway, at the end of which was a tiny building with the Tagalog sign, “Office of the Caloocan City Cemetery” in big bold letters.

I passed the mini-reception area and entered the door marked “Office”.  The room was about the size of my bathroom.  Three civil servants were seated in the air-conditioned office with one desk, two filing cabinets and one electric fan.  I noticed the glaring absence of a computer and a telephone.  The Chief was quick to welcome me.  After I stated my purpose, our Tagalog conversation went something like:

“Sorry, we only have records starting 1967.”  She pointed to the log books on the top shelf.

I thought I was in the wrong place.  “Oh, so the Cemetery was only opened in 1967?”

“No.  But we only have records beginning 1967.”

“So there’s no way to find someone who died before then?”  I must have registered a wrinkle between my eyes.

“I would have to look through each shelf on the card catalog.” Each shelf represents a “block” in the cemetery.

There were 4 x 6 shelves.  I could go through that in half of 4 x 6 minutes.  “They are not alphabetized?”

“They are.”

Ten-second staring contest.  “May I do it?”

It was only when I showed determination to find the information I needed, that the lady got up and looked through each shelf, all the while briefing me on the policies and procedures of public cemeteries in Caloocan — perhaps in the Philippines.

When someone dies, the family “rents” space in the cemetery for five years.  If your relatives do not come back to renew the “lease”, the departed’s bones are bagged and tossed into a “bone vault”.  I asked about how the bones are stored — for some reason, I was picturing a series of immaculate white shelves a la Smithsonian, like I saw on “Bones”.  It turns out that the “bone vault” was a pit in the ground; somewhere in the middle of their 2.5 hectare compound.

When the search for the name I needed did not yield a hit, I asked if they could check through the records of the “bone vault”.  They did not have one.

As a genealogist, I cannot explain the joy from finding that mystery-solving document on a long-departed, much more visiting a place where they lived or the place where they rest.  Conversely, it makes me awfully sad that just because many cannot afford plots in manicured memorial parks, the departed are moved around like rocks in a garden, nary a record of where their bones went.  My sobbing heart tells me that is just wrong.

One’s “final resting place” is never that, it seems, in a Philippine public cemetery.  :(

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 August 2011 17:49

    I completely agree – extremely distressing…. I still can’t get my head around it even after my father tried so patiently to explain the system to me over 8 years ago. Anyway, one thing I’ve always wondered about in such situations – what happens to the grave marker if there was one when they exhume and move the body due to non-renewal of the lease? Does anyone know?

    • Mona permalink
      20 August 2011 20:34

      The vacated “unit” is cleaned out the released to others for use. Everything else is chucked — remains, marker.

      A friend I was having dinner with last night mentioned that some enterprising caretakers sell bones to medical students and teaching hospitals.

  2. 5 April 2013 06:57

    Mona, you might find this documentary trailer interesting.

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