Some ‘rest and recreation’ at Doña Pepang Cemetery
It was nearing six in the evening when children carrying balloons walked down the concrete road from Doña Pepang Cemetery to Imus Avenue in Barangay Lorega, San Miguel, Cebu City.
Tracing the children’s footsteps will lead the curious to the backmost portion of the graveyard where a clearing is located.
Under the shade of talisay trees was a long, wooden table — its surface covered with a bright, pink rubber mantel.
Within the premises of what used to be called the Roman Catholic Cemetery, a family was celebrating the 1st birthday of their grandson, Chrisnel.
The Querubins are among about a hundred families living near the Doña Pepang Cemetery which was once the property of the Archdiocese of Cebu before the lot was traded for a city-owned property in Barangay Pasil in 2011.
The cemetery houses the Osmeña Mausoleum, the dominant structure in the area, where the remains of Doña Pepang, wife of former Philippine President Sergio Osmeña Sr., are buried.
Three generations of the Querubin family are now living inside their two-storey house, having settled in the area before Japanese soldiers reached Cebu during World War II.
Alma Querubin, Chrisnel’s grandmother, is the caretaker of the Osmeña Mausoleum.
“For the past years of my life, I practically live with a graveyard as a backyard. It’s my workplace,” she said in Cebuano.
For her work in the Osmeña Mausoleum, she receives a sack of rice and sometimes P2,000 a month, Alma said.
Before families decided to move to safer cemeteries, Cebu’s prominent families such as the Escaños, Borromeos, Brioneses, and Cuencos buried their dead here.
All of these families, except the Jerezas and the Osmeñas, had exhumed the skeletons of their ancestors, said Alma.
The Jerezas built a high-ceilinged mausoleum, and a visible ‘est. 192-’ marking etched beside its gates tells passersby that it stood there since the 1920s, withstanding the climate’s dramatic changes, demolitions and even bombings.
It is the only mausoleum left untouched in the backmost portion of Doña Pepang Cemetery where the Querubins usually stay, when idle.
“Right now, we’re planning to have a children’s Christmas party here,” Alma said.
“It’s only recently that we chose to have parties inside the cemetery because several tombs were cleared, and the area now offers a place for leisure activities,” she said .
Several members of the Querubin family also spend their free time in this clearing to tend their chickens.
“We place our chickens here because the air is actually fresher,” she said.
Gesturing towards more than a dozen potted, ornamental plants arranged neatly on what was left of a “nitso” (coffin-vault), Alma said all of the plants belonged to her sister.
“My sister does not want to keep her plants inside the house since we lack space inside. And we also gather here for small celebrations like barrio fiestas,” she explained.
Last year, the Cebu City government under former mayor Michael Rama began to relocate families living at the front portion of the cemetery to give way for plans to turn the area into a public heritage park.
Tombs, headstones and several mausoleums were also torn down in what was supposed to be the first round of demolitions there with the bones exhumed by city hall personnel and transferred to a columbary.
The Querubins who owned a title to their land were not affected by the demolition; but they would much rather keep the cemetery intact.
“Why do they have to turn it into a park? It should remain as the final resting place for our beloved relatives,” said Alma.
Alma noticed a declining number of people visiting Doña Pepang Cemetery.
“There are still people lighting their candles on the graves here but just a few, and they really don’t stay here for long. They just offer a few flowers and light candles, that’s it,” said Alma, adding that the sight of shattered coffin-vaults and lost headstones may have made people decide to transfer the bones of their departed loved ones elsewhere.
Reports on the demolitions said that relatives of the dead complained that the exhumations were ‘reckless, careless and messy.’
“I saw it. They shoved the bones inside a sack, tied it and brought it somewhere; but they could have done it in a less harsher manner. They should have remembered to respect the dead,” she exclaimed.
Alma told Cebu Daily News that no more than 10 cadavers remain in the cemetery.
Among them, the Jerezas’ deceased, said Alma, as she showed CDN two blue couches inside the family’s mausoleum.
There’s no place like home
But for some relocated families, the peace inside the cemetery provides a haven for respite.
57-year-old ‘Ramon’ walks all the way from his new house in neighboring Sitio San Miguel, Lorega to the Doña Pepang Cemetery with a small, monoblock chair every afternoon.
Ramon said he loved the peaceful environment inside the graveyard.
A year after they left, former residents like Ramon, continue to visit the cemetery grounds to make use of its ruins.
The young play on a concrete floor of a demolished mausoleum, in the middle of the graveyard, which is now wide enough to serve as a small basketball court.
But while others seek to enjoy the quiet of the old cemetery and the fun of playing with former neighbors, it has become part of Alma’s daily routine to clear the cemetery of rugby bottles lying around the fence of Doña Pepang’s monument.
At five in the morning with her broomstick, rubber boots and a metal dustpan, Alma sometimes catches children as young as five sticking their noses in the holes of rugby bottles.
The graveyard, she said, had also become a favorite hideout for teenage stowaways, most of whom made a living by selling stolen gadgets and jewelry to strangers walking down Imus Avenue at night.
“When President Duterte started the operations against illegal drugs, five raids were already conducted here and five men were caught in the act using illegal drugs inside the cemetery mismo,” she said.
“We practically know everyone here. They’re not from here, they just used the cemetery as some sort of hideout. But it did not last long,” said Alma.
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