Manila is a coastal city bursting at the seams of Manila Bay, extremely dense and still growing; with 13 million inhabitants and a grave housing crisis, upwards of 43% live in informal settlements. In such a small space, only 38.5 sq km or a quarter of the size of Washington, DC, land is at a premium. What happens when 1.65 million people try to fit into such a small space? They find space and make themselves at home, even in the most unusual conditions.
In the heart of capital lies the Manila North Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Metro Manila and home to some famous national heroes — and over 10,000 squatters who have made their homes in the resting place for the dead. Since the 1950s people have migrated toward the graveyard, building multistory tomb apartments for multi-generational families and creating an economy within the cemetery gates, taking care of tombs, running small shops, and even restaurants and bars. The city has tried to clear out the burial grounds before and successfully did so at the Manila South Cemetery, but the squatters resist relocation because of the steady employment and networks anchored in the cemetery. With up to 80 funerals a day roughly 6,000 people have enough work to get by, and they negotiate their claim to the space with the families who come to visit their dearly departed. Most people admit that it is not an ideal situation but they’re trying to live to the best of their abilities. Really, live.