by Quennie Ann J. Palafox

Cemeteries are the least visited places in contrast to parks and shopping malls. Not until November 1, when All Saints is annually held, that cemeteries get
absolutely crowded with families visiting their departed loved ones.  Contrary to common knowledge that cemeteries are mere final resting places for those who passed away, cemeteries are also historic sites and silent witnesses of history, and can be sources of historical information about important events that happened in a specific community.  

       The terms sementeryo or campo santo stirs fright among the public because of the popular belief that the sementeryo is inhabited by ghosts. The word sementeryo came from the Spanish “cementerio” which is also known as kampo santo from Spanish “campo” (field), and “santo”, (saints). Other names for sementeryo are pantyon, a Tagalog word for the Spanish “panteon” a (funeral monument), and libingan (resting  place) from the Tagalog “libing” or (bury).  

        The practice of burying the dead goes back to the pre-Hispanic Philippines where honoring the dead was observed by the families of the departed member because of the belief in afterlife. Thus, burial practices varied from one place to another depending on the culture of a specific group.

        When the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish, the Filipino practice of burying the dead with ceremonial rites carried on. It was customary to inter the dead Catholic members within church sacred grounds while religious and civil personages were buried within the church. This practice continued until the 19th century.

       The dramatic increases in the population of towns prompted civil officials to construct grave sites away from the centers of towns. This was to ensure proper sanitation of the disposal of the corpse.  On the grave site is a lapida or a stone slab with the name and birth of the deceased inscribed on it.

Giving proper burial was so important that the refusal of the parish priest to bury the body of the brother of Francisco Dagohoy sparked his resentment which
led him to stage the longest revolt in Bohol. For the campo santo was considered consecrated ground, and those who committed grave sins were not allowed to be buried on church grounds, and those who were refused burial were stigmatized as sinners unworthy of Christian burial, bringing shame upon the family of the departed member.
      One distinguishing structure inside the campo santo was the capilla (mortuary chapel) usually located at its center. A special site was also designated for children who died at a very young age, called angelito (little angel).

Three of the historic cemeteries in the Philippines can be found in Metro Manila namely: old Cementerio General de Dilao or Cementerio General de Paco, now
Paco Park, Cementerio General de La Loma or the Catholic Cemetery of La Loma, and the then Cementerio del Norte or Manila North Cemetery.  In the 19th century Manila, cemeteries were constructed primarily for the purpose of disposing massive numbers of corpses following epidemics. Likewise, the government of Manila wanted to promote sanitation to guarantee that the health of the population was properly safeguarded.

          The allocation of public lands for cemeteries continued into the American period. The North and South Cemeteries were built for the inhabitants of Manila and its environs. Other municipal cemeteries were also established; many, however, were built after the American regime. In 1906, the Americans passed the Cemetery Law regulating the establishment and maintenance of burial and the disposal of the dead in the province.

        Paco cemetery (now Paco Park) was built in the suburb of San Fernando de Dilao. The construction of the cemetery began in 1814, but the cholera epidemic that wreaked havoc on the city prompted the use of the cemetery in 1820. The Cementerio General de Dilao became the resting place for Spaniards, indios, and mestizos who came from the different parishes adjacent Manila, which included Intramuros, Binondo, Quaipo, San Miguel, Sta. Cruz, Sampaloc, Tondo, Ermita and Malate.  Paco Park, its niches empty and no longer used for burials, is now a hushed, well cultivated park. It has also become a venue for concerts and group exercises. It’s conversion into a beautiful national park was completed in 1966 and it is now under the supervision of the National Parks Development Committee.   
         The remains of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal were interred in the cemetery immediately after his execution in Bagumbayan (now Luneta). He was buried in the ground between the inner and outer walls and his former burial site marked with his initials in reverse R.P.J (Rizal Protacio Jose). The bodies of the Gomburza, the three martyred priests, were also buried in the historic Paco Cemetery.

         One of the oldest cemeteries in the City of Quezon is the La Loma Cemetery established in 1882. It was constructed in the hilly terrain of La Loma and inaugurated on September 21, 1882. La Loma Cemetery served as the grave site of the Christians in Manila.

      The Manila North Cemetery, on the other hand, was built during the early phase of American period.  In 1910, the Cementerio del Norte was considered one of the best and most attractive institutions of its kind in the Orient. The Manila North Cemetery serves as the final resting place for key figures in the Philippine history, including former presidents, revolutionary heroes and other men and women of notable achievement. Among the famous personalities interred in this cemetery are: Macario Sakay, revolutionist; Quintin Paredes, former senate president; Arsenio Lacson, former mayor of Manila; Gregoria de Jesus, widow of Andres Bonifacio; Francis Burton Harrison, Americal Governor-General; Atang dela Rama, singer and actress; Epifanio delos Santos, historian; Pancho Villa, boxer; Claro M. Recto, foremost nationalist; presidents of the Philippines such as Sergio Osmeña, Ramon Magsaysay, Manuel Roxas; and the legendary actor Fernando Poe, Jr.
        One may also marvel at the picturesque architectural wonders of the mausoleums of some wealthy families in the cemetery. Walking around the 50-hectare cemetery, you may notice the group plots of the Boy Scouts; Firemen; Jewish cemetery; Masonic burial grounds; Mausoleo del los Veteranos de la Revolucion; Armed Forces of the Philippines Cemetery and the Thomasites’ plot.

         The Mausoleo del los Veteranos de la Revolucion functions as the repository of the remains of the veterans of the Philippine Revolution in 1896 and Philippine-American War in 1899-1900. It was inaugurated on May 30, 1920 and the structure was designed by Arch. Arcadio Arellano. However, some remains of the heroes such as those of Melchora Aquino and Marcelo H. del Pilar were exhumed and transferred to their respective birth sites and given heroes’ honors.

       During the Japanese occupation, the Manila North Cemetery saw the brutal killings of innocent civilians. Members of Armed Forces of Japan under the command of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita were accused of executing non-combatant civilians at the North Cemetery during the months of October to November 1944. In December 1944 at North Cemetery, more than 2, 000 unarmed noncombatant and civilians were brutally mistreated and killed.

       Cemeteries do not only occupy an important role in our past but also serve as monuments to our country’s history. The historic journey of our people, nonetheless, does not end in the cemetery.


De Viana, Lorelei. Public Sanitation and Cemeteries in 19th Century Manila. Unitas, Vol. 77, No. 1, March 2004

CCP Encyclopedia

Historical Markers (1992-2006). Manila: National Historical Institute, 2008

Zaide, Gregorio. Documentary Sources of Philippine History Vo. 12. Manila: National Book Store, 1990.

Report of the Philippine Commission to the  Secretary of War, 1910.