A Life Among the Tombstones, by M. Van Ell

A band of children chasing a half-deflated ball past sun-bleached skulls and discarded femurs. Clotheslines burdened with damp linen sagging between crumbling tombs. A skillet sizzling away above a makeshift stove perched atop a chipped sarcophagus.
These scenes may strike most of us as plucked straight from the fictional landscape of some post apocalyptic motion picture, but to an estimated one million people worldwide, this is an everyday reality.
The rare socioeconomic phenomenon of “cemetery slums” has been documented in at least four cities: Lima, Manila, Cairo, and Phnom Penh. Each in its own right a major tourist destination and cultural hotspot, these national capitals have been subject to a surge in foreign investments and, as a result, rapid economic expansion.
This circumstance, in turn, prompted numerous residents of the impoverished periphery to abandon the destitute provinces, searching for employment and better opportunities in the capitals of their respective countries. However, mass urban migration, though itself a byproduct occurrence, brought along adverse consequences of its own.
Though distant in terms of geography, following a strikingly analogous developmental trajectory led these four cities to a similar if not identical fate. With wave after wave of domestic migrants arriving on the brightly-lit shores of the megalopolises, the demand for affordable accommodation soared. The capitals proved unable to cope with the influx, and an acute housing shortage ensued.
Shanties and shacks, cobbled together from corrugated steel, plywood, washed-up timber, and any refuse fit for the purpose, started appearing in uncontrolled quantities. Slums sprawled for miles and quickly became breeding grounds for organized crime.
Local authorities and state security forces responded accordingly, taking harsh measures to curb the unbridled proliferation of unauthorized settlements. Evictions—often violent, coupled with drug raids, and carried out without any prior notice—left thousands of families without roofs over their heads.
To make matters worse, Manila and Phnom Penh, both situated in a region prone to frequent hydrological and meteorological activity, suffered several heavy floods and storms over the years. Collapsing riversides and washed-away stilt foundations robbed those already teetering on the verge of homelessness of their improvised dwellings and belongings.
Thus placed in a most harrowing predicament by circumstances far beyond their control, large numbers of people resorted to squatting in cemeteries, occupying the stark and somber abodes reserved for the dead.
Historically speaking, for the living to take up residence among the deceased isn’t new. Practitioners of various professions inherently tied to the graveyard are known to have made the practical—if arguably morbid—choice of staying close to their work space in the past. And the cemetery’s demographic wasn’t confined to just the obvious morticians and monumental masons. In al-Qarafa, the Egyptian City of the Dead, for instance, students of the Islamic mystic tradition Sufism, as well as scholars interested in the religious monuments erected there, would too, on occasion, sojourn within the walls of the necropolis.
The population of folk willing to share quarters with the dead, and able to overcome superstition and social stigma, fluctuated throughout the decades, but never even remotely approached the unprecedented numbers it reached in the twenty-first century, when the housing crisis escalated beyond any proportion.
Starting with the least inhabited, the Cambodian Smor San public cemetery currently counts in excess of five hundred informal settlers. By contrast, as of 2019, the burial ground holds less than two hundred graves, which is due to some families relocating the remains of their loved ones out of concerns for the graves’ possible desecration.
As is true for all the cemetery settlements, Smor San lacks electricity, running water, proper sewage, and is comprised of hazardous homes built from reclaimed materials. Apart from the obvious challenges the inhabitants of the stilted huts must face on an everyday basis, here in Cambodia, there’s also a spiritual issue to consider.
The graves in Smor San belong predominantly to ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese citizens of the country whose respective faiths—Confucianism and Taoism—sanction or even insist on burial without cremation. The living occupants of this graveyard, however, profess a local variety of Buddhism closely interlaced with animism. According to their beliefs, a person’s earthly shell must be committed to a pyre in order to enter the next plane of existence. Improper disposal of the body, such as interment, results in a spirit trapped between this realm and the next.
Convinced, therefore, that the miserable and disgruntled ghosts of the dead upon whose ground they trespass still roam the earth, many in the community live in constant superstitious fear. The children seldom stray from their sparsely furnished homes after nightfall, and the adults complain about otherworldly presences haunting their dreams.
The city hall’s attempts at relocating the eighty or so families to a village have so far been unsuccessful. The cemetery’s residents communicated a preference to live side by side with the dead rather than move into the inadequate homes the municipality has to offer. With most of their households counting five or more members, the slum dwellers are reluctant to trade their admittedly makeshift but nonetheless spacious, sometimes multistory abodes for tenements of scarcely three hundred square feet. The effort to find a suitable alternative to the unauthorized settlement is ongoing.
Next in terms of statistics come the Philippine Navotas Public Cemetery and Manila North Cemetery, the former housing an approximate of six thousand poverty-stricken Filipinos, whereas the latter serves as permanent address to a staggering ten thousand.
Unlike Smor San, the Philippines’ two largest cemeteries are still very much active and growing, receiving up to a total of eighty funerals a day. It comes, then, as no surprise that the majority of the informal settlers here make their livelihoods in services associated with tending to the dead.
Men work as gravediggers, whose duties involve not only the burial but also the removal of bodies. A banal lack of space—the scourge of all four of these giant cities—calls for stacking tombs into structures akin to high-rise apartments. This same issue dictates the practice of exhuming the remains after a five-year renting period expires. Relatives are then given notice and the possibility to renew the lease, though with the stacked tombs reserved for the country’s poorest, few find themselves in a financial position allowing them to afford this last dignity for their deceased. The tombs are hence vacated and stripped of epitaphs and other personal markings, and the remains are discarded or burned.
Cooking, laundry, and maintenance of their modest homes—among which concrete mausoleums are kept in good order for a small stipend provided by the rightful owners—occupy the women, and while their mothers tend to the household, the children are busy as well. Few are exempt from labor in the cemetery’s competitive economy.
Deprived of the privilege to enjoy education, to the minors of Navotas and Manila North fall such tasks as fetching water from the communal well, painting or repainting tombs, sifting through waste, and scrubbing headstones on compensated request of the relatives. Their work, performed unsupervised and with minimal equipment, habitually involves climbing the necropolis’s towering stacks and exposure to decomposing remains.
On Undas, a Latin-influenced Filipino holiday related to Halloween, crowds flock to the graveyards to honor their dead, presenting an opportunity for the cemeteries’ tenants to sell flowers, candles, and refreshments. Children and adults alike avail themselves of the chance to boost their humble incomes, but with the recent pandemic requiring strict measures in regard to large congregations, Undas is mandated to be celebrated at home.
Unlike with Smor San, no documented attempts have been made to re-accommodate the informal settlers.
A tableau painfully similar to that in the Philippines greets the eye in Peru. Of the fifty existing cemeteries in Lima, only as few as eighteen are authorized burial sites. The rest, among which the Cementerio Santa Rosa, have sprung up as a result of the public cemeteries’ unaffordable fees. Here, too, the tombs are stacked high. Higher, in fact, than in Manila, with some of the niched walls counting up to ten tombs placed on top of each other.
Least documented of the cemetery settlements, the community of Santa Rosa is believed to be two thousand families strong. Unlike the other settlements, though, the original residents of the now extensive slum didn’t live between the dead from the beginning. Initially, those unable to acquire proper housing purchased vacant plots on the outskirts of the graveyard, building homes in proximity but not exactly next door to the crypts. This changed with Santa Rosa’s explosive expansion.
Illegal entrepreneurs, some of whom pretended to hold religious titles, began offering funeral services at a fraction of the cost the bereaved would be obliged to pay for a private burial. The financially challenged, unsurprisingly, turned to the unlicensed gravediggers and bricklayers, fueling an underground economy law enforcement has struggled to rein in ever since.
By no means exempt from the tribulations common to cemetery settlements, of all the mentioned, Santa Rosa remains the greatest cause of public health concerns. Unsanitary living conditions amplified the spread of such global afflictions as Zika, in 2016, and the COVID-19 virus. The graveyard has been shuttered, walled in, pronounced hazardous, locked down, and fumigated on several occasions, but to little avail.
Health agencies and local government both find themselves helpless in the face of this dilemma. They can neither relocate the twenty thousand graves nor stop the illegal burials, nor can they improve the slum’s inhabitants’ conditions. To this day, the Cementerio Santa Rosa presents a socioeconomic Gordian Knot.
Last on the list is the ancient Cairo Necropolis. Made up of multiple Islamic-era burial sites blended over the centuries into one labyrinthine whole, al-Qarafa spans for several miles and has come to serve as a refuge for an estimate of between three hundred thousand and one million Cairenes.
Sharing the fate of Manila, Lima, and Phnom Penh, Cairo too has undergone fast economic growth. As in the other countries, Egyptian society’s least fortunate members were forced to establish their domiciles among the departed.
Crowding the ill-lit confines of elaborate marble crypts or nestling mud-brick installations between crumbling shrines, the ostracized poor persevere in the City of the Dead, generation upon generation. They tap electricity, collect scrap metal, keep livestock, vend an astounding assortment of handcrafted goods, play music, and observe religious rites, paying the neighboring caskets and tombs little mind. Some attempt to escape society’s fringe, usually through marriage, but most resign themselves to following their kin’s example and stay within the cemetery walls, far from judging eyes.
Of the mentioned inhabited cemeteries, it is here in al-Qarafa that contrasts clash fiercest. Recognized as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Historic Cairo, the necropolis serves as the final resting place of prominent individuals. Sultans, emirs, generals, and saints from centuries past repose in their sleep everlasting beside today’s most marginalized social class.
A veritable magnet for conservation architects and scholars, al-Qarafa boasts numerous buildings of unique historical value. The elaborate vaults, lofty minarets, and picturesque mosques that have witnessed the rise and fall of empires vie for space with tottering hovels. The living keep swelling in numbers, crowding out the dead, and as the government’s nationalist vision of a new Egypt is put into effect, the rumble of bulldozers draws ever near.
Grave concerns are raised over the construction of highways cutting unceremoniously through the vast al-Qarafa, but local government, pressed to alleviate Cairo’s traffic congestion, give priority to more immediate issues than preserving sepulchers.
The cemetery’s residents watch the city of the living encroach upon the City of the Dead with understandable disquiet. After all, in this grotesque collision of circumstances, so little stands between them and mad urban conquest apart from the untouchable status of the dead. The dead care for the living here, and if the rights of the perished are also sacrificed on the altar of “progress,” the living will suffer expulsion to even more distant corners of society.
Author’s note:
To report on the phenomenon of cemetery slums and remain unmoved is, frankly, impossible. However objective a mind the observer strives to keep, the sight of such human suffering is apt to tug at even the most callused of hearts. Yet, bleak though a picture this essay paints, it would fall decidedly short of exhausting the subject without remarking on the affected people’s determination and unbroken spirit.
Surrounded by death and decay, their lives entwined with the grief and loss of others, tragedy and injustice being the order of the day, thousands of Filipinos, Egyptians, Peruvians, and Cambodians nonetheless display a valiant optimism. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversities, they do not lose hope and they make of their situation the best they can.
Forced into coexistence with the deceased, the living have adapted, showing a singular resourcefulness in forging a symbiotic relationship with the otherwise shunned dead. These people live, proving again and again that life is an admirably stubborn thing, resigned to trickle where it is not allowed to gush, like a streamlet picking its serpentine course in defiance of towering obstacles.
Anyone who visits these settlements is bound to discover an undeniable sense of community. There is solidarity and support here, decency and dignity, despite all odds. And when the battering heat of day finally gives way to cool twilight, strange though they may fall on a foreigner’s ignorant ear, song and laughter ring among the graves.
Because life always finds a way. Even if lived in a graveyard.

Born and raised in post-Soviet Ukraine, learning English was to M. Van Ell both a way to escape the bleak chaos of a ruined country and an act of intellectual rebellion. A fortunate find—his uncle’s secret collection of foreign literature—introduced him to fantasy, science fiction and horror, sparking a lifelong fascination. His family fled the oppressive regime of their homeland and found refuge in the Netherlands, where they reside to this day. M. Van Ell is autistic and through his writing hopes to convey the message that, sometimes, it’s the minds branded as broken that surprise you the most. Find him at Twitter @M_Van_Ell.

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