Beyond the Gravestones
By Excel V. Dyquiangco
Since November is all about the dead – one might as well take a visit to the interesting graveyards of Manila, which not only provide fascinating architectural talking points, but a peek into history, including the past lives of some of the country’s most influential figures. Before you shy away from the idea though, consider that the sprawling landscapes, the majestic and intricate monuments actually do speak volumes, providing one a distinctly weird, but wonderful appreciation of how those who have passed are paid homage long before they are gone.
Manila Chinese Cemetery
There is no question why this is called the Manila Chinese Cemetery – the structures that abound remind visitors of a Jackie Chan movie with its historic and exotic molds depicted in any one of his scenes. Chinese halls, memorials and temples with its unique designs all adorn the gateway to the second oldest cemetery in Manila.
Guests are treated to one of the grandest Chinese temples in Manila at the entrance, the Chong Hock Tong Temple, which is different from other temples since this was built in the 1800s. Its architecture is similar to the ones located in the Fujian province in the southeast coast of China, and the elaborate structures of temples in Singapore and Malaysia with their upturned eaves and colorful wall paintings.
The Martyrs Hall (Liat See Tong) was constructed to give honor and recognition to the Chinese community leaders who were put to death by the Japanese during World War II. Not as grandiose as some of the other temples, but still worthwhile seeing in lieu of the portraits of the martyrs and the bit history (in Chinese, though) in its four walls.
Other notable places within the Chinese Cemetery are the Carlos Palanca Memorial, or the Tan Quien Sien in gratitude to the efforts of the famed Chinese businessman and leader for giving the Chinese proper burial sites during the Spanish regime, and the Ruby Tower Memorial where hero Apolinario Mabini used to be buried. The mausoleums are also a sight to behold. Much like the houses in pre-modern China, they emulate a rich man’s house – usually a two-storey structure with a terrace or a patio, and no windows.
Manila American Cemetery
Administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Manila American Cemetery is the largest in terms of the number of graves. The cemetery covers 152 acres of gently rising grounds which ends at the memorial. The entrance to the cemetery is at the far north side of the grassy circle just beyond the military sentinel’s post at the junction of the Nichols Field Roads and McKinley. Upon entrance, visitors are greeted with the circular fountain of the plaza and at right is the visitors’ building.
Stretching from the plaza to the memorial is the central mall lined with mahogany trees; roads going eastward and westward leading to the graves and some wells and deep reservoirs, which provide potable water within the cemetery.
The area for the graves is divided into eleven curved lettered plots of varying sizes forming concentric bands around the high ground on which the memorial stands. The 17,097 headstones within the plots form segments of concentric circles and mark the graves of the US Military and some Philippine nationals who were serving in the US army. Most of these headstones were quarried in Laza or Carrara, Italy, as well as in the island of Romblon.
The memorial is clad in Travertine limestone quarried near Tivoli east of Rome. It consists of the tower containing the small devotional chapel, and the two extensive hemicycles to its front which embraces the Memorial Court. The chapel stands between the south ends of the hemicycles – with the great seal of the United States carved in Travertine paving. The façade of the tower is decorated with scriptures, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the altar set against the rear wall.
Other features are the maps made of tinted concretes with brightly colored fine aggregates; the Southwest Room which has seven maps and their descriptive texts; and the Northeast Room which has six maps and the Northwest Room with five maps.
Libingan ng mga Bayani
This memorial cemetery is a tribute to the gallant men and women who brought honor to the country and died for the sake of democracy and freedom. Not only are presidents and statesmen buried here but national artists, scientists and various personalities who brought recognition to their different fields. This is a shrine, a memorial and a cemetery, and a reminder of extreme reverence to the country’s fallen heroes – all in one.
Upon entrance, an imposing structure shaped in the form of a large concrete tripod known as the Heroes Memorial Gate greets the visitors. This has a stairway which leads to an upper view deck and a metal sculpture (which looks like a disco ball) at the center. Erected at the sides near this structure are two stone brick walls which bear the quotations by General Douglas McArthur: “I do not know the dignity of his birth but I do know the glory of his death.”
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is constructed at the center of the cemetery where an inscription shouts out on the tomb: “Here lies a Filipino soldier whose name is known only to God.” Behind the tomb are three marble pillars representing the three main groups of islands in the country – Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
Similar structures which also depict Filipino bravery and courage are enshrined in three monuments. Those who have dedicated their lives during the Bataan and Corregidor siege are epitomized in the Bataan and Corregidor Defenders Pylon while Filipinos during the Vietnam War are honored in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Pylon, a striking structure set with the form of an eagle perched on top.
Other prominent monuments are the Korean Memorial Pylon, a towering structure resting on a triangle with the names of the 112 Filipino officers and men who perished during the Korean War; the Philippine World War II Guerilla Pylon, a black-walled tower in honor of those who fought during World War II.
Manila North and South Cemeteries
The Manila North Cemetery (aka Cementerio del Norte) is a community in itself, thriving with vendors, small grocery stores, sari-sari stores, carinderias, tricycles, small restaurants in the backyard, and even a basketball court – and home to about 10,000 residents. One of the oldest cemeteries in Metro Manila, this encompasses 54 hectares – not only occupied by the mausoleums, the crematorium, or the tombs but by houses and shanties as well. The streets inside are lined up with a couple of apartment-type tombs, which some have been painted with a bright color so it would stand out from the rest.
The designs and styles of the tombs and mausoleums are of no real architectural value, except for some heavenly structures such as angels, and statues of saints.
What’s so interesting about the square-shaped Manila South Cemetery, however, is that it is set with the Makati business district as its backdrop. The 25-hectare cemetery (about the same shape and size as the campus of the University of Santo Tomas) has former President Elpidio Quirino as one of its “residents.”