The Philippines: Living With The Dead To Survive

“Manila North Cemetery, opened in 1904, is one of the oldest and largest in the Philippines. Its elaborate mausoleums and endless rows of humble, stacked tombs are home to an estimated one million of the dead —  the cemetery is also inhabited by some of Manila’s poorest people. Many live in the crypts and mausoleums of wealthy families, who pay them a stipend to clean and watch over them.” A. Dean, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Noemi Canilang, 41, resting in a family mausoleum with her 8-month-old grandchild. She has cared for the mausoleum for 25 years. Credit Adam Dean, NYT


Excerpt: Hard Life Among the Dead in the Philippines, By Adam Dean, The New York Times

“Others find different ways to engage the economy of death and burial. ‘There is really no work here inside the cemetery, so I taught myself how to do this in 2007,’ Ferdinand Zapata, 39, said as he chiseled the name of a dead man into an ornate marble headstone. As many as a quarter of Manila’s 12 million people are informal settlers. Those in the cemetery prefer its relative quiet and safety to the city’s dangerous shantytowns. The resourcefulness needed to live a life of such insecurity is on full display here.

Sitting on a tomb, Lorgen Lozano, 14, watches a soap opera in the mausoleum where her family lives. She sleeps on the tomb at night. Credit Adam Dean, NYT

In mausoleums, and in makeshift structures built over tombs, families go about their days. They chat, play cards and watch soap operas on TVs mounted near headstones or ornamental crosses. At night, people sleep on the tombs. The thought of that may be jarring, but for the residents it is a practical choice. And many in this devoutly religious country see the boundary between the living and the dead as porous. Electricity in these converted homes is jury-rigged, and most residents don’t have running water. At the few public wells, people line up with carts loaded with empty water bottles, waiting to fill them up.

A family eating lunch in Manila North Cemetery, where they live among the tombs. Credit Adam Dean NYT

Children played in a pool on a tomb. Credit Adam Dean NYT

Amid all of this, the normal business of a cemetery goes on. On a busy day there can be as many as 80 funerals.

[Funeral] Family and friends paid their respects to Glen Baleña, 26. Credit Adam Dean NYT

Residents say drug use and crime have been on the rise in recent years; Mr. Zapata, the headstone carver, dated it to roughly 2000, when slum clearance nearby led to a wave of new residents. President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drug dealers and addicts has also been felt at Manila North. In September, three men were killed here in what the police called an antidrug sting operation; they were said to have been trying to sell $10 worth of shabu [methamphetamine]…As the heat of the day dies away, boys and young men play basketball on improvised courts, or a version of billiards that’s popular in the slums of the Philippines.

Residents playing a version of billiards.Credit Adam Dean NYT

Night often finds Mr. Gonzalez, the 74-year-old who was working on a crossword in his family crypt, sleeping there. But he is not a resident — he owns a condominium in Manila. His neighborhood, though, is more dangerous than the cemetery. As he put it, ‘The dead can’t harm you.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. The cemetery has many elaborate mausoleums.
  2. The residents watch soap operas on TVs mounted near headstones.
  3. The thought of sleeping on a tomb that may be jarring.
  4. This is a devoutly religious country.
  5. Electricity in these converted homes is jury-rigged.
  6. The cemetery is dense with tombs and crypts.
  7. President Duterte led a  bloody crackdown on drug dealers and addicts.
  8. During the day, new homes are built from modest tombs.
  9. Workers add makeshift roofs of corrugated iron, often scavenged from somewhere else.
  10. The cemetery’s many children play among the tombs, and are unconcerned about ghosts.

Reading Comprehension

True /False/NA-Statements

Directions: Review the following statements from the reading.  If  a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is  not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they  mark  it F and provide the correct answer. 

  1. Manila North Cemetery opened in 2004.
  2. As many as a quarter of Manila’s 12 million people are informal settlers in the cemetery.
  3. In mausoleums, and in makeshift structures built over tombs, families remain quiet out of respect for the dead.
  4. They have electricity and running water.
  5. At night, people sleep on the tombs.
  6. Electricity in these converted homes is jury-rigged.
  7. Amid all of this, the normal business of a cemetery goes on.
  8. Tombs are generally  bought for five years.
  9. People leave offerings of snacks, drinks and sometimes cigarettes at their relatives’ gravesides.
  10. Residents say drug use and crime have gone down in recent years.


Using Adjectives  to describe pictures    

Directions: Have students choose a picture from the article  and write a descriptive paragraph using adjectives.

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions:  Place students in groups and have each group list 3  questions they would like to pursue in relation to  the article. Have groups exchange questions. Each group tries to answer the questions listed. All responses are shared as a class.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. 


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