Eleven years ago, I started a practice on All Souls’ Day where I bring along flowers and candles to public cemeteries. I would scan the tombs and ask caretakers which ones do not have “visitors.” I normally light a candle, utter a short prayer (which include one Our Father, one Hail Mary and one Glory Be) and leave a flower on the tomb.
In the process, I learned stories and tales from the caretakers who were often generous about sharing their experiences in the cemeteries. Most of them told me that horror movies got it all wrong. They said, “It is the living that you should be afraid of, not the dead.”
I have two favorite public cemeteries: the Carreta Cemetery and the former Lorega San Miguel Cemetery. For places considered to be the depositories of dead bodies, cemeteries brim with life and energy.
At any given day, there are children who play by the tombs. They have made the cemetery into their playground. Before calligraphy became a fad two years ago, the lapida-makers were scribbling names, birth dates and death dates and quotes on hard surfaces. Of course, the caretakers are cemetery mainstay who probably have memorized the “renters of the condominium units.”
Three years into this practice, around 2010, I convinced my brother Hendrix to join me. He was then an architecture student who was working on a thesis about tenement housing for residents of Barangay Lorega San Miguel who were living — guess where — within the premises of the cemetery.
On November 2, 2010, Hendrix and I spent the entire morning at the Carreta Cemetery where war veterans were buried. We were running out of candles and flowers because the caretaker said those tombs never had any visitors.
We were down to our last three candles and flowers when Hendrix said we should check out the Spanish cemetery. I suspected he saw a friendly ghost. I knew it was not Casper.
Only two tombs had flowers and candles. Hendrix and I just finished our prayer when a family of eight people showed up with vases of flowers and baskets of fruits. They stared at us with confused looks plastered on their faces as if asking why these two human beings were standing by their relative’s tomb.
I later explained what we do. The oldest male in the group told us that all their family members are based in the US and it had been two decades (maybe even longer) that they visited their great-grandfather. I could not remember what the deceased man was doing in the Philippines prior to his death. I did remember shaking the hands of the family members who looked at me and my brother with suspicious eyes.
Hendrix was sure that they thought of us as the grandchildren from the illegitimate line who probably got the lion’s share of the diamonds and the rubies.
The same day, we dropped by the Lorega San Miguel cemetery to pay respects to the dead buried there.
A 2011 article written by CDN Day Desk Editor Doris Bongcac noted that the cemetery was named after the revolutionary leader Gen. Enrique Lorega and the San Miguel warehouse which was a landmark in the area. Lorega Cemetery is the “first cemetery in Cebu and famous Cebuanos and World War II veterans were buried there.”
It was my brother who told me that the cemetery covered an area of 9,000 square meters. While it is said that the cemetery was built in 1936, imprints from one of the oldest tombs say it has been used as a graveyard since 1912.
In 2012, it was announced that the old graveyard will make way for the living as the presence of a cemetery in the middle of a densely populated area is a violation of the sanitation code, which requires a cemetery to be 25 meters away from a residential house and 50 meters away from a water source.
Condoville 1 was opened and welcomed residents who were former cemetery dwellers, who used to live in shanties with tombs doubling as their beds.
The condo building was a project of Gawad Kalinga funded by the Priority Development Assistance Fund of Cebu City North District Representative Raul del Mar and nongovernment organization Action for Nurturing Children.
In visiting these tombs, Hendrix and I have seen the best and the worst of people. We were tempted to call parts of cemeteries that are unusually quiet on November 1 and 2 as “ghost towns.” We laughed at our silliness.
After nine years of doing this prayerful version of tomb raiding, Hendrix and I have grown together just like the old times when he was the four-year-old minion to my eight-year-old bossy self.
Since we started doing this together, I graduated from college, became a journalist and traveled the world. I got married and became a mother of three children. Hendrix became an architect and finished countless paintings and projects. I guess those five years of figuring out how to construct buildings in cemeteries helped him pass the board. I do not know how cemetery visits helped me in raising a crazy household of three toddlers. I will figure it out someday.
Hendrix and I prayed a lot, laughed a lot and walked a lot in the last nine years of “tomb raiding.”
When asked what’s the most memorable part of this adventure/journey, Hendrix and I both agree that it is witnessing two men roasting a gigantic pig beside tombs in Lorega San Miguel.
Don’t ask me if we had some of the lechon.
A tomb raider knows good food when she smells one.
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