BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, November 5, 2007

The kingdom of the dead

The smell of fetid sweat pervaded in the air, inside the narrow, dimly-lit walkway. In the darkness, I searched the pocket of my worn-out jeans for coins to pay for the P2 entrance fee.

A fat, friendly-looking man in plain white shirt and brown shorts was waiting at the exit to collect the money. I paid my dues and when I went past him, I was in awe of what I saw.

The maze-like passageway opened up to the kingdom of the dead. There in front of me, shining under the glimmer of the early morning sun was a vast expanse of graves and hundreds of people visiting their dead.

It was November 1 and I was at the Manila North Cemetery to chronicle this year’s All Saint’s Day commemoration. I was privileged to join Luis and Akira, two of the country’s most passionate photojournalists for the day trip.

We entered Manila’s biggest burial place through one of the many side entrances: through the homes of the many informal settlers living around the cemetery. The small handwritten sign which read, “Shortcut to FPJ, this way,” caught our attention.

The settlers have opened their homes to outsiders for P1 or P2 per person. It was a reflection of Filipino ingenuity. We wasted no time and stepped inside a small shanty. In minutes, we found ourselves inside the cemetery, just a few steps away from the grave of movie icon Fernando Poe Jr.

It was actually a small amount to pay to be very near the heart of the cemetery without passing through the barricade of policemen, traffic enforcers and volunteers who were guarding the main entrance.

We walked around the area the whole morning, taking snapshots of almost everything.

The scenes of the day were as colorful as the millions and millions of graves and epitaphs that filled the cemetery.

We climbed tombs and mausoleums and passed through mourners of all ages. Some were busy cleaning the graves of their loved ones. Many were eating, laughing and enjoying the day. Children roamed around as if they were in one giant playground. Many found time to sleep, right there on the graves of their loved ones.

Our cameras just kept on clicking. We made our way around the labyrinthine cemetery. We allowed ourselves to get lost into the dark corners and narrow walkways. In some parts, an eerie silence accompanied us. In most of the cemetery, Filipinos had one big feast.

Hunger soon caught up on us as our tired bodies also begged for rest. We left the cemetery after a few hours with pictures of the living and the dead.

It was to me, an experience for more profound than I had expected.