Silence of the Cemetery

How many times have you been told to visit some place that is new?

Sunday morning started early for my family. We raced out of the house because it was close to assembly time. When we arrived, we saw that all four buses had most seats filled with members from our local church. Predictably, departure time was pushed back because some people were running late. To me, that meant I had more time to catch Z’s before we left.

At the school grounds
At the school grounds

From the city, we exited south and headed for the Resort Capital of the Philippines: Laguna.

From the South Luzon Expressway, we made our way through Santo Tomas, Alaminos (which I remember mostly for their beautiful rural bank building I saw while on the bus), San Pablo City, and Calauan. Even if I didn’t see the resort sign myself – hugely because of the side of the bus I was on – that telling turn told me that we had arrived at our destination.

Villa Gregoria, a terrace resort
Villa Gregoria, a terrace resort

Villa Gregoria is a popular terrace swimming spot in Brgy. Buboy, Nagcarlan, Laguna. It is an accredited resort by the Department of Tourism. Also, it has won various awards, including five major awards from prestigious bodies such as the Provincial Government of Laguna and the Laguna Tourism Council.

The church family gathered to say a prayer of thanks that we arrived safely. Just before the swimmers took over the pools, I dashed up and down throughout the whole resort to take photos.

Why was I in such a hurry? I needed to see the dead.

Just a few minutes from the resort is the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery. The whole Baroque-style structure that spreads across one hectare was built in 1845 as directed by Franciscan priest Fr. Vicente Velloc. It has been highly emphasized that – unlike most cemeteries – it is located away from the town center. Similar to Paco Park in Manila, it is an octagonal enclosure; along its wall are graves and in the middle is a carpet of grass intersected by a tiled path, which also goes around the cemetery.

Another similarity of Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery with Paco Park is that the entrance, which stands about 18 feet high, also faces a chapel where funeral masses were held. This one is called Campo Santo. Just before entering the chapel, I noticed that the two niches that guard the door are empty; I wonder what used to stand there. The Campo Santo houses a two-tiered retablo that encases the Santo Sepulcro, a figure of a sleeping Jesus Christ lain on a slab and is covered by a richly detailed, velvety mantle. At the top of the retablo is a small figure of a crucified Christ.

Fifteen feet below the chapel is the centerpiece of this storied monument: the crypt. The 36 niches inside it are the resting places for a number Spanish friars, elite townsmen, and even local heroes. The underground cemetery also served as the secret meeting place of the Katipunan in 1896. The following year saw Gen. Severino Taiño and Pedro Paterno plan the Pact of Biak-na-Bato there. The crypt became the sanctuary of Filipino leaders during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 and Filipino guerillas during WWII.

While standing in the middle of the crypt, looking at end to end, I frustratingly searched for signs of the legendary tunnel that led to a church in the province. But the dim lights left me guessing.

The crypt in the dimness
The crypt in the dimness

Most of the occupants aboveground are regular townsfolk. There are about 240 niches there, 120 on each half of the cemetery. The total of niches above and below ground is 276. The oldest grave dates back to 1886. The last interment happened in 1982.

Even before I finished my round, I had noticed the epitaphs on the grave markers of the locals. There is the ubiquitous R.I.P. (“Rest in Peace”). There’s also the D.O.M. (Latin, “Deo Optimo Maximo”, translated as “to the greatest and best god”) that I first encountered at Paco Park. It didn’t take me long to figure out what S.L.N. stood for: “sumalangit nawa”, the Filipino equivalent of R.I.P. But it was E.P.D. that stumped me. My friend Arby said it may be a Latin phrase. But I found nothing that could fit the initials. It was hours later when Kuya GB solved the mystery: E.P.D. is the Spanish phrase “es paz descanse”.

As I wound up my exchange with Kuya GB with gratitude, another puzzle formed in my head: in the same period, two places were led by different trends for their grave markers. In Paco Park in Manila, the Latin D.O.M. was the choice epitaph while kilometers away in Nagcarlan, it’s the Spanish E.P.D. The colonizers’ influence on locals couldn’t be more stressed but why would a dead language be more fashionable in the capital and while theirs – a living language! – remained in the surrounding provinces? Despite how intense I wonder, the answer never arrived.

The portion of the wall on the right is where the faded Spanish inscription is.
The portion of the wall on the right is where the faded Spanish inscription is.

If you ever visit the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery, do note that, at the landing at the staircase that leads to the crypt, there is a terribly faded Spanish inscription on the wall. Here is the English translation of it, as provided by Wikipedia.

Go forth, Mortal man, full of life
Today you visit happily this shelter,
But after you have gone out,
Remember, you have a resting place here,
Prepared for you.

While I regaled my mother about my findings, she surprises me with a fact of her own: we have been to the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery before, when I was still a kid. I have vague memories of the whole trip except for being around the dead. It may be my second time around it but it feels like the first time. The place felt new to me.

The saddest part of the trip was not leaving. It was not getting any answers. The cemetery was silent about what she knew. She is indeed great at keeping secrets.

This is Part One of a Two-Part Post.


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