Living with the Dead


Geraldine Javier, Ella Amo’ Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved), 2010, oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229 x 160 cm, Singapore Art Museum collection

Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between the living and the dead. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.

Of the thirteen million Filipino residents living in the capital city of Manila, 43 percent live in informal settlements. While some live under bridges, or along highways, more than ten thousand people call Manila North Cemetery their home. Laid out in 1904 to spread across fifty-four acres, it is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Metro Manila. The community has flourished over the course of several decades, with multiple generations of families spending their whole lives between the walls of the cemetery. Residents make wages by working as caretakers for the mausoleums they inhabit or by selling food to neighbors and mourners. Children help collect money for their families by carrying coffins and rummaging for salable plastic or scrap metal.

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP.

Sleeping atop graves or playing between the stacked tombs, Manila North Cemetery residents spend their lives in communion with the deceased. Though many work to protect the burial sites from grave robbers, the residents themselves are in constant risk of peril. Gang violence and robberies are prevalent in the cemetery. Without access to hot water, electricity, viable roofs, or locked doors, cemetery conditions are hazardous for the dwellers. Still, the inherent dangers do not prevent the tenants from growing their families.

The Philippines has one of the fastest growing populations in Asia, largely due to its status as a devoutly Roman Catholic nation. Under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, abortions are illegal. Abortion patients and doctors alike face imprisonment for taking part in the procedure, with longer sentences imposed on women who seek abortions to “conceal” the loss of their virginity. However, the threat of incarceration is only one of many reasons some Filipino women avoid abortions. Though some clinics perform clandestine abortions, the fee of 2,000 to 5,000 pesos—roughly $43 to $108 USD—is too high for many impoverished women. Many fear facing complications resulting from unsafe abortions, knowing that some hospitals refuse to treat these injuries, while others punish patients by operating without anesthesia.

Extreme poverty and religious beliefs have resulted in unmanageable surges of population growth, with no immediate sign of hope for change. Government officials repeatedly threaten the cemetery dwellers with eviction, but with nowhere else to go, the families have no intention of moving. While many Filipinos are fighting to live among the dead, South Koreans are increasingly choosing to avoid graveyards.

Prompted by a dearth of cemetery space, South Korea passed a law in 2000 requiring the removal of subsequent graves after a period of sixty years. This law undermines the traditional conviction that burial sites are places where the dead may rest in peace for all eternity. To avoid future exhumation, the majority of South Koreans now opt to be cremated. However, the rise in cremation has stimulated a cultural shift in traditional beliefs.

South Koreans believe that the dead rightfully deserve to be returned to nature, though many are unsatisfied with the idea of ashes being spread in the wind. Traditionally, South Koreans have strong bonds with their ancestors, and it is common for family members to regularly visit gravesites. Cremation strips relatives of a place to visit when they want to be with a deceased loved one.

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News.

Based in Icheon, South Korea, a company called Bonhyang transforms the cremated remains of loved ones into decorative, Buddhist-style beads for a fee of roughly $900. According to CEO Bae Jae-yul, Bonhyang beads are unadulterated, containing only human remains. Rival companies, such as Mikwang, blend in supplementary minerals to produce more symmetrical, gemlike beads faster and at lower temperatures.

These companies subject cremated ashes to ultrahigh temperatures, until they are crystalized and transformed into beads. Bonhyang’s whole process lasts ninety minutes and results in blue-green, black, purple, and pink cremation beads. The ashes of an average adult typically generate four or five cups of beads, and those with higher bone density, namely children, can result in double the amount. Families often disperse the beads among their relatives, so that the departed can remain with multiple members of the family. Many keep the beads on decorative dishes, or in glass containers in centralized locations of the household.

While some might be hesitant to openly display the cremated remains of a relative on their coffee table, many cherish the beads as tangible connections to their ancestors. Rising population and limited space have forced South Koreans to welcome the dead into their homes, whereas mirrored conditions have had the opposite effect in the Philippines. Stricken by greater poverty, Filipinos have countered population capacity by instead moving in with the dead.


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