Photography by Suchet Suwanmongkol and Kristian Dowling
Last month I had the unique opportunity to visit the Philippines with a good friend of mine, photographer Suchet Suwanmongkol. We heard of a very unique place in Manila, called the ‘Northern Cemetery’ and decided it was something we had to see. Being over 50 hectares, it’s the largest cemetery in Manila with well over 1 million people buried there. Among those buried, are thousands of people who have made this cemetery their home, most of which are made up of families and many children who take care of the grave sites in return for free rent and a safe place to live. While I wouldn’t describe it as the kind of ‘safe’ many foreigners are accustomed to, compared to the many dangerous slums in Manila, this place is what many locals would describe as ‘safe’.
Armed with my Leica M (typ 240) or ‘M240’, I set off with my Summicron 28mm lens on a day’s journey. Many would question my decision to use only a 28mm lens, but it was a challenge I set for myself to step outside of my comfort zone of 35mm and 50mm, and push myself to get closer to my subjects. Using a 28mm lens is a lot more challenging. For starters, it’s a wide angle that exaggerates perspective where things become further away from you, compared to using 35/50mm lenses. In the M viewfinder, the perspective is not accurate because the finder magnifies the view to suit 35mm lenses, the most common lens used on an M. So using the finder, you need to remember you’re not as close to your subject as it seems. Using an external finder can help. Not only does it give more eye relief for 28mm, but a better idea of the perspective and camera to subject distance is usually more accurate.
Khun Suchet (Khun Pom) was using a Leica M with this Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 lens, which he found very useful for this kind of work. I was very impressed at the detail this lens can resolve right from f/4 and is a lens I'd love to add to my kit in the future.
My guide for the day was Jerry, like “Tom and Jerry” as described by the Filippino man. While he looked like he was 27, he was actually 44 years old, and had only been working at the cemetery for a few months. Ironically, while working in South Korea, his father passed and was buried at this very cemetery. Unfortunately, he could not be there for the funeral. Here he is pictured with his father’s grave.
As I began my journey through the site, I was amazed at the abundance of graves, literally on top of each other, but occasionally there were much larger tombs including this one here. This man is lucky enough to be the care-taker of this tomb where his children are safe and sheltered from the weather. Considering it was monsoon season, they were very fortunate to be in such a position.
For those privileged enough to be living inside tombs, there is very little space, with coffins, beds, cooking utensils and clothes all bunched together in cramped spaces. While this may not seem ideal, this is where they sleep, and during the day they are often out to work outside the cemetery or spending time outside with friends.
One of the first noticeable features that stood out to me was the amount of children living here. They are everywhere, and appear to be very happy. While it may not seem an ideal place to grow up, living amongst the dead is very normal for them, and from what I can see, they look just as normal and happy as any kids I have seen in most neighborhoods around the world.
With a site so enormous it was impossible to see the entire place in just the few hours I was there. There is a lot of construction going on with new tombs and grave sites so people are constantly at work, trying extra hard to beat the monsoons that will inevitably pass through here. Also, with so many graves there is little room for the children to play so some of the monuments and statues become their play equipment - respectfully of course.
On weekends, the cemetery becomes very busy with easily 30+ funerals a day, and the streets become not only filled with people, but also markets. Khun Pom and I were there on a quiet weekday so there were few stores open, but it's surreal to see people buying and eating food in the middle of a cemetery.
I heard the cries of sobbing women, and followed the cries to a funeral. Surprisingly, I barely hesitated and politely worked my way into the crowd, acting like I was meant to be there, as part of the process. I think this is important, otherwise I'd probably look as if I was intruding, with signs of guilt written all over me.
Luckily, I was unofficially accepted by welcoming eye-contact from family members, almost as if they felt honored to have me there. I continued to move closer to the coffin as it was transported through the cemetery to it's burial site. To my surprise there weren't too many people crying. In fact, as the coffin was being placed into position, white balloons were let go of, floating into the sky, as if they were letting the person go to heaven. It was actually quite a happy goodbye, and for me a relieving experience.
As I made my way around the cemetery I could feel and see firsthand, the respect the people had for their home, and for the dead that occupy it. While a resting place for the deceased, it's also a place of work for those who occupy the space and the respect between the two sides is obvious just by how clean the area is, especially in comparison to the slums situated throughout Manilla.
Sadly, my next encounter was difficult to swallow. Being a father, I felt my stomach collapse when I saw the next burial was for a young child. Out off all the things to suffer from in this world, there is almost nothing worse than a parent having to bury their own child, and even though it wasn't mine, I felt the pain almost as severely. The closer I got, the harder it was to press the shutter, but I kept pressing. I felt it was important to record the final memory of this poor child before being laid to rest. This was the last time the child would be seen.
Shortly after the child's burial, we heard music playing and found a crowd of people following a hearse through the streets. The crowd all had a very sombre look on their faces, as if they were walking down the street on any regular day. It was kind of surreal to me because I expected a lot of emotion and tears, but that was not the case. The group was mostly young and quite possibly a lot more experienced at this kind of thing than I am.
As they made there way through the streets, I was a little taken back by their silence. There was barely any talking, and even their footsteps were near silent. I couldn't help but be caught in the moment, where my photographic senses shut down and I become part of the process, part of the event. I had to stop and wake myself up and remind myself why I was there. I could not be distracted. As a photographer, this is easy to do, and If I was on assignment it probably isn't a good thing, but being there, shooting for myself, I relish the experience and feel humbled by the feelings and emotions running through me. To me this is what the experience of photography is about. As I progress as a photographer, I feel less results driven and appreciate the shooting experience more and more. When I die, I can take these experiences with me, not my pictures.
Finally, the parade came to a stop and I was curious as to what would happen next. What did happen, was a little surprising and shocking for me personally. Part of the grieving process for many is to see the body in it's diseased state, and often, in many religions, the coffin is opened for viewing.
Following this, it was now time to move the coffin to it's grave. This was a process that is not usually so complicated in most cemeteries. It began with lifting the coffin over tombs, and then under tombs, for quite some distance. It was a physically demanding challenge that required around 20+ people to complete. Amazingly, many of the residents at the cemetery came over to help out and it really was a community effort. I was surprised at how willing they all were to help out.
The coffin reached it's destination and the tired crowd filled with families, friends and cemetery community could finally breath a sigh of relief, emotionally and physically. Once the coffin was in place and apartment door shut, the crowd quickly dispersed and I was left trying to absorb what I had just witnessed. I was truly humbled by the community effort put in by the residents at the Northern Cemetery. It's quite a departure from shooting celebrities in the comfort of Hollywood hotels and I feel privileged to be part of what was an attitude-changing day for me. It not only helped me overcome my fear of death, but I learnt to respect death and appreciate the way that life and death can not only co-exist, but occupy the same space, literally.
Special thanks to Khun Pom for inviting me on this trip, and the following people for their assistance and great work to make this story happen.
- Teerayut Chaisarn (Tum) - Photo Assistant to Khun Pom
- Phaorat Maneerat (North) - Second Photo Assistant
- Noli C. Gabilo - Photographer and Guide to Philippines
- Jerry - guide from Northern Cemetery, Manilla.
- Northern Cemetery Management
Lastly, thank you to the The Norhtern Cemetery residents for their hospitality allowing me into their lives for a day. It was an experience I'll cherish and never forget.