The Caretakers of the Manila Chinese Cemetery

It looked like a typical post-siesta afternoon for Johnny “Mang Jun” Montemayor as we approached him. Lying on his wooden bed under the shade of an old Feng Shui-blessed tree, he conversed with his friends in front of one of the numerous mausoleums or kapilyas in the cemetery.

It was not an occasional visit to pray to his ancestors. Mang Jun, albeit having Chinese descent, reveals he is not related to anyone resting in peace inside the mausoleum. He is, however, one of the hundreds of certified tomb caretakers working at the second oldest cemetery in the country—the Manila Chinese Cemetery.




The cemetery borne out of discrimination

The Manila Chinese Cemetery is located near the R. Papa station along Line 1 of the LRT; thanks to its beautiful, sprawling mausoleums of various architectural designs, it’s impossible to miss when passing by the station.

History shows the Chinese cemetery was not built for exclusivity; the cemetery was erected because the Spaniards denied the Chinese burials in Catholic cemeteries upon refusing to convert to Catholicism.

Many might not be aware that it is not only the Chinese whose remains reside in the cemetery. Apolinario Mabini’s remains were originally buried there before he was moved to his final resting place in Batangas. In fact, Jose Rizal mentioned the cemetery in passing in his book, Noli Me Tangere; Father Damaso had Don Rafael’s corpse moved to the Manila Chinese Cemetery because he thought heretics had no place in a Catholic cemetery.

But Mang Jun tells us there are actually numerous Chinese Spanish mestizos buried in the older and richer areas of the cemetery, which is why some tombs have Catholic emblems on them.

“Hindi lang talaga mga Chinese ang nakalibing dito. Para sa mga mayayaman kasi ang sementaryo na ito kaya meron din mga Chinese na may lahing Kastila na nalibing rito.”


A ‘deadly’ job

53-year- old Mang Jun has dedicated 14 years of his life looking after a Chinese family’s tomb found in one of the older parts of Manila Chinese Cemetery. “Araw-araw ako nandito. Nag-i-in muna ako sa secretary ng boss ko bago pumasok.” Unlike other caretakers who only work part-time, Mang Jun spends nearly every day keeping the dead company.

Mang Jun explains it’s hard to become a caretaker because only certified caretakers are allowed to work in the cemetery. The processing is rigorous; those interested in becoming a caretaker need to follow strict procedures. “May ID kami dito. Kailangan kumuha ka ng police clearance, drug test, at NBI,” he shares.

His duties include regularly cleaning the tombs and keeping an eye on the mausoleum. Come the eve of October 31, Mang Jun assists the family members in setting up the materials needed to perform rituals.


Feng Shui-blessed caretakers

For the first seven years, the cemetery became his temporary abode, with permission from the family he is serving. But when the private cemetery started to prevent them from sleeping inside, caretakers like Mang Jun, who came all the way from Pangasinan to work in the cemetery, were only allowed to stay in whenever All Soul’s Day is approaching.

Even after suffering from a stroke last 2013, Mang Jun shares the family he works for did not want to replace him. “Ayaw ako tanggalin kasi daw naka-Feng Shui ako. Ako lang ang pwedeng mag-alaga, o kaya yung family ko. Nung magre-resign na ako, wala silang kibo. Buong lahi nila ayaw,“ he explains.

“Sa katunayan, nung na-istroke ako, inopen nila yung foundation nung matanda. Ipinasok ko yung anak ko [doon],” Mang Jun proudly and gratefully shares how he was able to send his children to college through his work and the help of his employers.


Caretaking as a tradition

Unlike Mang Jun who works full-time serving only one family, 41-year old Vanessa Calitis handles around twenty kapilyas. Caretakers like her are not obliged to check on the kapilyas on a daily basis, as long as they keep them clean and free from dirt from time to time. “Kapag sabado at linggo lang kami puma-pasok sa mga simpleng buwan,” she reveals.

Working for almost eight years, Vanessa shares their job as caretakers has been passed on from one generation to the next. In her case, her mother-in- law passed it on to her because no one else among her in-laws wanted to work in the cemetery. “Takot kasi ang mga anak ng biyenan ko kasi nga puro patay.” 

For Leticia “Ate Let” Simplicio, taking care of the kapilyas has been handed down to her by her mother. 30-year- old Ana, her daughter, who is also a part-time caretaker since 2009, refers to it as salin-salin.

Leticia shares she spent most of her childhood in the cemetery back when the security was less stringent. “Maliit pa ako nandito na ako. Dito ako natira.” At 57, Leticia is still working as a part-time caretaker, serving as many families as she can just to make ends meet.


Cultural practices

“Iba ang tradisyon nila kaysa sa mga Pilipino,” Mang Jun observes, “Kahit mga ninuno nila na hindi nila kilala hinahanap padin. Hinahanap nila ang ugat nila.” He says the Chinese have a lot of respect for their ancestors and their dead.

Mang Jun has been a caretaker for so long he has picked up a thing or two about the cultural practices of the Chinese. He shares he has worked for his employers that they trust him enough to perform many of these practices when they’re not around.

Mang Jun explains how they honor the Totikong, which is located on the edge of every mausoleum in the cemetery. He explains, “Yung Totikong nagbabantay ng kapilya na to,” Mang Jun says. The Chinese honor the Totikong first before their deceased by lighting incense sticks and kneeling before the small marker and then sticking the incense in the pot in front of it.

He tells us the incense is called Hiu and the paper they burn is called Kim. He shares the Kim isn’t just regular paper; the Chinese burn it for their dead because it represents money. They burn it so their relatives have something to spend in the afterlife. Every November 1st, the wide-open streets of the cemetery become cloudy with smoke rolling around from all of those honoring their dead.

The Kim is different from the paper they stick around the tombs. “Yung papel na iba’t ibang kulay. Dinidikit nila yun para alam na meron na bumisita na kalahi nila sa kapilya na yon.”


“Kwentos” from beyond the grave

“Wala naman gaano dito,” Ate Vanessa replies when asked about stories of the dead communicating with them from beyond. “Tahimik lang andito pero meron isang kapilya na bawal ka matulog doon kasi ayaw niya may mag-tambay sa kapilya niya,” shares Ate Let.

According to them, the resident of that certain kapilya is known to shake the benches of those brave enough to take a nap in their final resting place. Mang Jun says, “Sa sementaryo wala naman masyadong multo, sa simbahan yung marami kasi doon sila humihingi ng awa.” 

While their job as caretakers might not be as rewarding as it seems, taking care of the dead has provided Mang Jun, Ate Let, and Vanessa ways, although unconventional, to make a humble, and honest living. They are grateful for being valued by the families they serve as much as they value their work. “Hindi naman kami tatagal ng ganito if hindi sila mabait,” Mang Jun shares.

Cirilo Cariga

By Cirilo Cariga

Denise Nicole Uy

By Denise Nicole Uy

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