Burial Houses

Text and Photographs by Jean Revillard

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Living on Death

In the Del Norte cemetery in Manila, 6,000 very much alive human beings survive next to the dead. In this 54-hectare plot where most Philippine presidents are buried, I photographed families, children and old people, ghost inhabitants who occupy the mausoleums of their own family, someone close or who rent tombs from Manila families.

What interested me here was to highlight a social fact through the objects that reveal it and not through the men who endure it. As in my previous work on the Calais jungles, it is not the human but the object that speaks, as it illustrates a living condition in a highly visual manner. That is the reason for which I focused on the vaults and their interior furnishings, true living places in the world of the dead.

I also see parallels between my two photographic works on this cemetery inhabited by the living and the Calais jungles inhabited by migrants: precarious territories, huts for houses, the importance of access to water, the development of a local economy, resourcefulness, and life going on. Social life gaining the upper hand and organising itself.

The Del Norte cemetery has generated businesses and mortuary handcraft workshops where pots, small sculptures and bouquets of flowers grown on site are made. Some inhabitants become improvised guides, launderers, chauffeurs, mourners, gardeners. Over the years, a real economy has been created and there is even a school. From this territory, highly dense areas emerge, while others remain deserted.

The social hierarchy also continues alongside death, since some families shelter in very crude vaults, while others lodge in very luxurious ones that belonged to their own family, often mine-owners. Today, these “rich” people are still considered privileged because their children work in delocalised call centres. Globalisation spares no one and resides everywhere.

It’s impossible to know when this land occupancy started, but many old people were born and have lived their whole life amongst these graves. There is even a dialect specific to this unusual neighbourhood.

The inhabitants say they have found refuge there as the place is calm in comparison with the streets or slums of Manila, where 13 million inhabitants survive in informal dwellings. However, life in the Del Norte cemetery is changing, and insecurity and pauperisation have increased. Theft is on the rise, violence is widespread, the Mafia racketeers inhabitants for access to water and electricity.

The Asian Development Bank has declared the area one of the poorest in Asia and, in 2010, the Philippine government spent 1.2 billion to move Manila’s homeless to the countryside, settling families in farms. Many inhabitants, however, came back to the cemetery. “Here, I have the most solid and the quietest house that could be” exclaimed an old lady. “It’s the best lodging that I’ve had in my life!”