History in cemeteries
Technology has changed our lives so much that many people who used Waze yesterday to find the fastest route to the graveyard didn’t find it unnerving to be told, “you have reached your destination.” In a similar vein was the Freudian slip of a sign at the entrance to the Manila North Cemetery that read: “Welcome po kayo dito. Mayor Alfredo S. Lim.” That, coming from Manila’s “Dirty Harry,” made all the difference. When I teased the mayor about not wanting to be welcome in the Cementerio del Norte, the sign was taken down. Now I know why difficult City Hall employees reformed themselves instantly when threatened with transfer to Manila Zoo or “Norte.”
Of the handful of Metro Manila cemeteries worth visiting for a historical tour, the most grand and well-maintained is the American Cemetery in Fort Bonifacio. It’s a quiet sprawl of green that provides respite from the noisy, growing mass of concrete, steel and glass nearby. Simple white crosses marking 17,184 graves are scattered over 152 acres—for condo-dwellers who overlook the landmark, a grim reminder or memento mori that wealth and glitz can’t be taken to the grave.
At the heart of the American Cemetery is a memorial, ornamented by mosaics that narrate how the last World War played out in the Pacific. Carved on the severe limestone walls are 36,286 names of the missing (those marked with a rosette have since been recovered and identified). You will recognize many Pinoy casualties among those of the Americans, everyone identified by name, rank and designation. There were Pinoy cooks and busboys, all dead in their prime. All lost their lives in a war not of their own making. Only a stone will remain unmoved by a place that makes visitors wonder why war continues to plague humanity, why we have not learned from a history lesson bought with untold suffering.
Each time I visit the American Cemetery, I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly,” which said that, from Troy to Vietnam, “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history [is] the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.”
Not as impressive or moving is the nearby Libingan ng mga Bayani, the final resting place of Filipino soldiers, National Artists and four presidents of the Philippines, namely: Elpidio Quirino, Carlos P. Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos. Emilio Aguinaldo is buried in the back lot of his home in Kawit, Cavite; Jose P. Laurel is buried in Tanauan, Batangas; and Corazon Aquino is buried in the Manila Memorial Park in Sucat, Parañaque. The three other presidents—Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay—have notable tombs in the Cementerio del Norte.
Manuel Luis Quezon has the most impressive tomb of all. Fashioned from black Italian marble, Quezon’s echoes that of Napoleon’s in Les Invalides in Paris. The Quezon Memorial Circle is designed like a sun whose rays are the streets that radiate from it. Quezon City was once the capital of the Philippines, a modern American city built to contrast with the decaying Spanish Manila of Philip II. Too bad Quezon City rebranded itself as the “City of the Stars”—not the eternal ones in the sky, mind you, but those whose fickle light depends on the box office.
My first visit to Norte was prompted by E. Arsenio Manuel, whose research for the four-volume “Dictionary of Philippine Biography” required picking dates of birth and death off tombstones. No two mausoleums in Norte are alike; they range from simple plots with cross and tombstone to condominiums with modern amenities and appliances.
Notable are the tombs of Francisco Guilledo (1901-1925), or the Pancho Villa tomb that has a representation of his boxing gloves and his World Flyweight belt; the Tuason Legarda mausoleum, a whitewashed pyramid guarded by a pair of sphinxes; and a white ship, the MV Last Voyage, built for the self-styled “Admiral” Tomas Cloma, whose soul presumably doesn’t mind that people who visit give the steering wheel a few twists and turns.
Norte may not have the architectural wonders of the nearby Chinese Cemetery, but it boasts many people who shaped Philippine history. Norte is to Manila what Père Lachaise is to Paris, and Highgate is to London. Cementerio del Norte is a place to walk in history.
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