The Gardens of the Shadow of Death

How did you celebrate this year’s Independence Day?

Together with my best friend Jake, we chose to visit two historical places that have one huge similarity: they house the dead. The afternoon of June 12 saw us wandering around two of the oldest cemeteries of the country.

First Stop

Paco Cemetery Marker
Paco Cemetery Marker

Paco Park or, according to its marker, Paco Cemetery is along the corner of Gen. Luna Street and Padre Faura Street. Because it was Independence Day, the entrance fee was waived. From what I know, it usually costs Php 10.00. Despite its fame as a walled garden used for intimate weddings and small concerts, it was originally a municipal cemetery that was officially opened in April 22, 1822. Some of the more famous occupants within its walls were the GomBurZa priests Mariano Gómez, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora and the national hero, José Rizal. While the whole nation knows that the latter is buried just a few meters away at Luneta Park, no one is sure where in the little garden the bones of the former are; while it is believed that one of the priests has been found, the other two are still lost.

We walked along the ramparts for a while then descended the steps that led to an enclosure guarded by putti. You may know them by another name: cherubims. The putti (singular: putto) are those fat, naked, winged babies that appear in many of the artworks created during the Renaissance; they are also used as adornments for Baroque-style structures, like that section in Paco Park where only children were buried.

The more graves we passed, the more we noticed the differences between what was etched on grave markers during the Spanish colonial period and the modern Filipino times. Many used Spanish words, a few French, and one each in American and Filipino—if we counted them right. A number of markers meant for children bore only their first names or nicknames. One of the biggest differences was the usual abbreviation etched on the marble slabs; of all the markers there, we only saw one with R.I.P. (“Rest In Peace”) meanwhile many of the others had D.O.M on them. After a little research, we learned that D.O.M. stood for the Latin phrase, “Deo Optimo Maximo”, which means “to the Greatest and Best God”.

One other curious thing we noticed was that Don, Señor, and their female equivalents were appended to some names. Google told us that they are not just honorifics; they are actual titles. Also, they are not limited to royalty, nobility, and the wealthy. Don was given to the educated while Señor was for the elderly.

Second Stop

La Loma Cemetery is the second oldest official burial site in the country. It was opened some time in 1884. The “La Loma” in the name is translated to “the hills”, which came from the district in Quezon City known for its lechon baboy or roast pig. The cemetery, which lies beside the Rizal Ave. Ext., is open to the public from 8AM-5PM. It has two gates: one is near the R. Papa LRT station while the other is close to the 5th Ave. LRT station.

Jake and I entered the R. Papa gate. Beside the metal arc, a statue of Saint Pancratius greeted us. In the Roman Catholic faith, he is the patron of the jobless, sick, and the youth. It’s a curious thing that the chapels of the two oldest cemeteries in the country bear his name. Despite looking for a good answer to that question, nothing sufficed. When I reached home later that day, I looked up more information on the saint and came across accounts that say that his tomb and relics were popular with people who would swear oaths. When he was still alive, he never liked liars. In death, items and places connected to him are said to detect liars. My guess is, by having two places where one could swear a ready oath to a saint that was against lying would be convenient. And both places being uncomfortably close to the dead was quite a reminder for those swearing.

Unlike Paco Park, La Loma Cemetery still allows new tenants to join its growing number of occupants, some of which are Cayetano Arellano, the first Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, and Librada Avelino, the founder of Centro Escolar University. The cemetery is a museum of architectural styles and language trends from the last century.

The small mausoleum of late Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Cayetano Arellano
The small mausoleum of late Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Cayetano Arellano

But while it was easy to get lost in the streets just looking at the graves, mausoleums, and the standout gazebos and pavilions, we were there for something else entirely. Jake asked me if I knew how to reach our real destination. Unfortunately, I forgot to look up the map. We just followed my instinct. In less than five minutes of walking past the rotunda, we saw it peeking just above the trees.

The old Saint Pancratius Chapel, even from afar, is perfect for abandoned porn shots. It hid Filipinos during the Philippine-American War. It is a silent witness and a survivor of the bombing of Manila during World War II. And it is the namesake of the street Bahay Cursillo or Cursillo House.

Its front door is guarded by a couple of stone lions, which echoes Chinese influences. At the top of the door is a Latin inscription, Beati mortui qui in domino moriuntur, which means “Blessed are the dead who die in the grace of Lord”. Atop what appears to be the bell tower is strange fixture. At a better angle, we discovered that it’s an armless small angel.

A portion of the yard resembles that of a columbarium. And the land on which the chapel stands is also supported by the dead; by that, I mean, there are actual bodies buried beneath the platform. And while it is so tempting to get a better look inside by entering it, the magnificent structure is closed for most of the year; it’s said to open only during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Guess we might return to that garden.


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