Looking Back

Cementerio del Norte

/ 04:07 AM October 30, 2019

Manila North Cemetery, also known as the Cementerio del Norte, is said to be the biggest in Metro Manila. It is also the most historical, being the final resting place of Presidents Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay, as well as many others who figure in Philippine political and cultural history.

Manuel Luis Quezon was the first president of the Philippines buried in Norte, but his remains were transferred in 1979 to the Quezon Memorial in Quezon City, and those of his wife Aurora followed in 2005. Manuel Quezon Jr. is now buried in his father’s old tomb. I first visited the North Cemetery decades ago, following the advice of E. Arsenio Manuel whose four-volume “Dictionary of Philippine Biography” required research in countless cemeteries. Manuel told me that one could read history off tombstones, verifying sometimes conflicting dates of birth and death in the primary source documents.


On my first visit to Norte, one of the things I noticed was that it was not so much a necropolis or city of the dead, because it was cohabited by the living. Mausoleums visited once a year on Nov. 1 are home to an assortment of folks who do not mind sharing space with the deceased for the other 364 days of the year. In one corner of the cemetery was a sari-sari store, in another was a laundry area where clothes were left to dry flat on nearby graves. Residents did not mind taking a siesta, playing tong-its, or crooning with a karaoke machine inside mausoleums or on top of graves. Nobody minds ghosts here, if there are any, reminding us of the saying: “Matakot ka sa buhay hindi sa patay,” since the dead and ghosts are harmless.

Inside the Mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution, a wonderful art-deco structure in the round, I found a family in residence who welcomed me inside and offered me lunch, simmering on a one-burner gas stove. Open empty niches served as storage for food and kitchen supplies, clothes, shoes and other personal belongings. Most of the heroes of the revolution once buried there had been claimed by towns and cities and transferred to purpose-built, prominent, single-occupancy mausoleums or memorials for their historic dead.


The only name I recognized in the Mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution was that of Licerio Geronimo (1855-1924), who led the Battle of San Mateo in December 1899 that claimed the life of enemy general Henry Ware Lawton, the highest-ranking casualty of the Filipino-American War. Lawton, like many American soldiers who saw action in the Philippines, had combat experience suppressing American Indians, and it is significant that Lawton, who was involved with the capture of the Apache chief Geronimo in 1886, died from a sharpshooter’s bullet under the command of Licerio Geronimo in 1899.

Opened in 1904, the Norte has a layout or plan resembling a skeleton, but that is now obliterated by overcrowding. Here, you will find the gray mausoleum of Familia Hidalgo, whose most famous son, the 19th-century painter Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, lies inside after his death in Barcelona on March 13, 1913. In the Basa Family plot, the most ornate marble tomb is that of Jose Ma. Basa, a friend of Jose Rizal who lived in Hong Kong and whose home was an informal base for Philippine propaganda and revolutionary activity. When he was interred in Norte in 1907, the funeral music was “Aloha Oe (Farewell to Thee).” This tune, familiar to Filipino girls who learn the hula today, referred to something else in 1907, because it was associated with Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, whose land was annexed by the US like the Philippines.

One of the best laid-out plots is that of the Nakpil-Bautista clan, with an impressive art-deco memorial that houses, among many illustrious members of the family, the grave of Andres Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus de Nakpil (1875-1943). While Jose Rizal is buried under the monument in Luneta, some of his relatives share a mausoleum marked Rizal, Hidalgo, Ver.

I have yet to visit the Manila South Cemetery in Makati, and discover if Metro Manila has also East and West cemeteries. But I doubt if these maintain as much history and eccentric graves and mausoleums as Manila North.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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