Under Heaven

A social documentary on the stories of people living in

                    public cemeteries in Manila

Chun Wai


The North Cemetery in the Philippines’ capital of Manila is crowded and dilapidated. It is not just where the deceased rest in peace, but also where many poor people call home. The latter have come from remote villages.

Since most of the lands in the country are monopolized by rich landlords, farmers are forced to become tenant-farmers. Unable to repay their loans, these farmers leave their hometowns reluctantly to seek livelihood in Manila, thus becoming the urban poor.

The graveyard is jam-packed, the sanitary conditions appalling. Graves with shelters are most sought after as they help to combat the toxic hot weather and typhoons that batter the region.

Water is another problem. The residents have to buy and bottle drinking water for later consumption.

As space is limited, the grave dwellers place their meager belongings in the corners of the graveyard and use the coffins as their beds. Bizarre as it may seem to those who know little about the background, the scene is infinitely miserable. Every year when All Saints Day arrives, the residents move all their belongings out of the graveyard to let families mourn their deceased loved ones.

What does it feel like to live in a cemetery? Is there really no other choice for these human lives? Over the past two years, I had paid several visits to various cemeteries of Manila and interviewed many grave dwellers.

“Indeed, I have no choice!” Marilia said helplessly, aged around 60. Marilia has been living in the North Manila Public Cemetery for years. She lived in a rural village before that. Unable to tolerate the difficult life in her hometown, she came to Manila to seek livelihood. Now she lives in the graveyard with her daughter and grandchildren. All the family members sleep on the floor inside the grave, over which Marilia has fixed a crude iron sheet. Plastic sheets dangle on two sides of the grave to provide some privacy. A copy of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci hangs on the wall like a picture of revelation, divulging the ridiculousness of the world.

I began to follow the condition of poverty in the Philippines in 2004. As some customs of the land system from the colonial periods persist, current polices on land ownership and use still favor the few major syndicates which own lands. Farmers who cannot afford to pay rents or repay their loans have no choice but to leave their hometowns in hopes of making a living in the big cities, only to become the urban poor.

Children running and playing add to the yard of bleakness a hint of vigor, but at the same time deepen the sorrow. “Under Heaven” is a real story of peculiarities, of the vulnerable community which has been pushed aside to live without help and whose meaning of existence is diminished. It is a real story of those who walk an ill-fated journey in silence.


“Under Heaven” won the Annual Human Rights Press Awards 2010 – Prize in Photojournalism