Cradled by the grave

This photo story by Ralph Piezas explores the lives of families living within Carreta Cemetery, one of the oldest and biggest graveyards in Cebu City, Philippines.

Ralph is originally from the Philippines himself, where he worked as a photographer, but now lives in New Zealand.

Poverty in the Philippines has been a perennial problem in the country, according to official government statistics for the first semester of 2015 more than 26 million Filipinos remain poor with almost half, or a little more than 12 million, living in extreme poverty and lacking the means to feed themselves. Being pushed to desperate measures others chose to live inside the cemetery and raise their family. Can the people thrive living with the dead, and can the dead rest in peace?

The Carreta Cemetery, owned by the Church and built in 1906, is one of the oldest and biggest graveyards in Cebu City, Philippines. It houses not only the dead but also the living. It’s estimated over 15,000 corpses are buried here and almost 100 families consider this place as home, with both numbers increasing.

Here it is common to find families where three generations live together and some are even raising more than two children. There is no rent and people can tap illegally for electricity. With no water supply or proper toilets, the people living inside the cemetery dispose of their human waste in vacant areas. The cemetery is located in the heart of the city where jobs are accessible and several public schools are nearby, but some parents expressed that their children chose not to go back to school after being bullied and made fun of for residing inside the cemetery. In 2012, a Non-Government Organization built a daycare school inside a Mausoleum to help the families inside the cemetery.

People living here find ways in order to survive. Men earn money by carrying the coffin, putting it inside the tomb, and cementing the cover for 30 to 50 pesos equivalent to less than 1$. Women scrape candle wax and sell it to candle makers. Kids, on the other hand, are seen crowding, waiting for the burial ceremony to end to ask for snacks also called “Tawiwit”.

People have different reasons why they chose to live inside the cemetery, some were born here, others have nowhere to go, and a few left their town to escape from something. It is rumored that criminals hide in this place to avoid getting caught. Unfortunately, others resort to illegal measures to earn money. A few people inside the cemetery reported that some men dig graves and steal valuables buried together with the body. Tombstones made up of marble are stolen, removing each layer by layer until the name of the owner is no longer visible and is sold again.

Many visitors expressed negative comments saying that they don’t feel safe and cannot focus on the burial ceremony because of children playing around and begging while they are praying. Trash, including human and animal waste, is scattered around the graves. The church has been planning for some time to clear the graveyard of illegal settlers but has always been unsuccessful since many individuals living here and some private organizations showed resistance, claiming they have been in the cemetery for a very long time and the priority is to help the living and that there is not much to do to help the dead.

Paterno, 74 years old, started to live inside Carreta cemetery when he was just 8. He expressed that nobody wants to live here and that they are always willing to leave if the church or the government forces them to. It’s just that everybody here has nowhere to go, has no money or formal education to survive outside, and that this is the best place for them where they can stay temporarily.

According to the caretaker of the cemetery, people living inside received help from organizations for their education, employment, and settlement. Relocation sites were donated to them, but they come up with different reasons not to move out of the cemetery. He believes that poverty may have led these people to live here but there is a deeper reason as to why they chose to stay despite the help provided for them to start a new life outside the cemetery.

He states that families living inside are like people who are prisoners with an open cage, yet they chose to stay. For him, the comfort of being used to the difficulty inside and the fear of living outside are the reasons why people are hesitant to leave.

All Images © Ralph Piezas