Guest Column: Five Historical Cemeteries in Manila
One of the easiest ways of learning about a place is to ask its dead. Cemeteries are more than just places of eternal rest; they can be a guide to an area’s historic past. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, was founded by Spanish conquistadors Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571. It isn’t old by world standards, but it’s got a lot of cemeteries in it, and even though the popular quote says, “dead men tell no tales,” you’ll find that if you dig hard enough, the dead can be quite chatty. Here are five historical cemeteries in Manila, and some of the stories behind their most famous residents.
Paco Park is a charming little pocket of green hidden in the middle of the bustling and congested Paco district in Manila. The circular park, cut off from the rest of the city by high stone walls, is a popular site for outdoor classical music concerts, wedding receptions, and family picnics. It also used to be a cemetery.
The Cementerio General de Dilao was built by Dominican friars in 1822, although it had been in use for at least two years before that. The cemetery housed the remains of the wealthy of the era, when the Philippines was a colony of Spain. The walls are actually hollow and served as niches, and when there were more bodies than burial places, a second round wall was built outside to house more of the dead. Philippine National Hero Jose Rizal was first buried there (his grave has been moved to the nearby Rizal Park), as were Catholic priests Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomes, and Jacinto Zamora who were accused of inciting mutiny against the Spanish government.
Interment stopped in 1922, and the cemetery was converted into a park in 1966. Many of the bodies were taken away when the cemetery was transformed into a park, but if you look closely at the crumbling walls, you’ll notice that some were left behind.
Manila North Cemetery
Originally part of the bigger La Loma Cemetery, the Cemeterio del Norte was built in 1904 and was reserved for Catholic burials only. Like many cemeteries, it was a site of Japanese atrocities during World War II, where over 2000 civilians were killed in 1944.
Because it is one of Manila’s oldest cemeteries, and because it was used to house the remains of the rich, a visit to the North Cemetery can also mean an architectural tour of the past, with many mausoleums reflecting what was in vogue at the time they were built. Parts of the cemetery look more like than a gated community than a necropolis. The cemetery is the final resting place of many historical figures, including ex-President Manuel Quezon, who is buried beside his dog. There are also group plots, which include the Jewish Cemetery and Masonic burial grounds.
The Manila North Cemetery is perhaps the most recognized Philippine cemetery internationally, mostly because of the many articles and documentaries about the thriving community of marginalized people who have started living above the graves.
Libingan ng mga Bayani (LNMB), or Heroes Cemetery, was established in 1947 as the Republic Memorial Cemetery for Filipino military personnel who served during WWII. The name change happened in 1948, when a law was signed “Providing for the Construction of a National Pantheon for Presidents of the Philippines, National Heroes, and Patriots of the Country.” It is now the final resting place for national heroes, national scientists, national artists, and Philippine Presidents.
Its most controversial resident is the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was buried there in 2016 in a secret ceremony. Marcos died in 1989 and was refused burial in LNMB because of his crimes. Until his sudden burial, which has been described as “like a thief in the night,” his body had been on display in a crypt in his hometown.
Manila Chinese Cemetery
The Manila Chinese Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in Manila. It was built as the final resting place of Filipinos of Chinese descent who were denied burial in Catholic cemeteries during the Spanish colonial period. The cemetery is filled with mausoleums that showcase Chinese architecture. The oldest Chinese temple in Manila, built in the 1850s, can be found here. The cemetery was also the site of many atrocities during WWII, one of the most jarring being the mass execution of Chinese Filipino leaders, one of the first things the Japanese did when they occupied Manila.
Famous occupants include Ma Mon Luk, a restaurateur who started out as a noodle vendor who popularized mami, noodle soup, in the country and WWII Brigadier General Vicente Lim. There is also a memorial to Don Carlos Palanca, a businessman and literary advocate (the Philippines’ most prestigious literary prize bears his name) whose efforts helped bring the cemetery into existence.
This writer’s maternal grandparents and great-grandmother are buried in this cemetery.
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial
The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial was established in 1948 and is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It has the largest number of graves (17,206) of any U.S. military personnel killed in WWII. Many of the interred were killed in New Guinea, in the Battle of the Philippines, or during the Allied recapture of the Philippines. The cemetery is also the final resting place of Filipino and allied soldiers who died during the Second World War. Ensign Hank Ptacek, the uncle of Newsletter Editor Kathryn Ptacek, was a naval pilot shot down over the Pacific during WWII, and his name is on a marker, along with hundreds of others, in this memorial.
There are 23 Medal of Honor recipients buried or memorialized in the American Cemetery. There is also a memorial to the five Sullivan brothers who died when the USS Juneau sunk in 1942, and one dedicated to the “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” American soldiers who died in Camp O’Donnell, the first prison camp for those who survived the