NAGCARLAN, Laguna?The underground cemetery here is not only the final resting place of departed loved ones, it is also where history is preserved.
While many locals visit the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery, foreigners value the historical site more, says Agatonia Bugia, cemetery curator for the past 22 years.
According to Bugia, foreigners are amazed by our national heritage, appreciating even the slightest details in the chapel and cemetery like the old tiles and ceilings.
On the other hand, Filipino guests tend to disregard the artifacts and ask, ?Is that it?? she says.
If there are Filipinos who value the national heritage, Bugia says they are most likely studying art or history.
?It goes to show that Filipinos have not yet welcomed the preservation of our cultural heritage,? she adds.
Church historians as early as 1901 regarded the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery as the only one of its kind in the Philippines.
Today, although there are many underground mausoleums, Bugia says Nagcarlan?s may be the oldest in the country.
15 feet under
The 163-year-old cemetery, located on the boundary of Nagcarlan proper and Barangay Bambang, was built by Franciscan friars during the Spanish colonization.
Fr. Vicente Velloc, who was parish priest in the 1800s, designed the 18-foot façade of the chapel for funeral Mass and took advantage of the 1-hectare sloping terrain to build an underground graveyard.
Bugia says although the structure?s walls and ceiling have been renovated a few times, the original design and structure have been retained.
Below the chapel?15 feet under ground?is the famous crypt.
There are two flights of stairs. The first nine steps lead to a landing where there are Spanish inscriptions, worn away by the passage of time. The Nagcarlan Historical Committee translated the inscriptions which say:
?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.?
The last six steps lead to the underground portion of the cemetery, lit by a small iron-grilled window that opens to the ground level. Arranged into rows on the four walls are 36 niches where the dead of the town?s privileged are buried.
No ghost stories
?We don?t have an exact number of people buried here,? Bugia says.
But above the ground, they have counted 240 niches while 36 are lodged in the crypt or the underground portion of the cemetery.
Asked if she believes in ghosts, Bugia says, ?I?ve never experienced any ? but visitors say they feel someone is walking with them when they are in the underground portion of the crypt.?
Bugia, along with shrine guide Cecil Sumague and two utility personnel, run the cemetery.
The oldest niche in the cemetery had the date ?1886.?
The last interment was in 1982, before the cemetery was declared a national historical landmark.
?It is considered a historical landmark because the underground portion used to be a secret meeting place of the revolutionary leaders in Laguna in 1896,? Bugia says.
Most of those buried in the cemetery were townsfolk who belonged to elite Catholic families.
Today, Nagcarlan has opened its municipal cemetery in the town proper.
During the All Souls? Day, the underground cemetery looks like any other memorial park where people offer flowers and light candles for their departed loved ones.
?In the underground cemetery, relatives bring flowers and pray [but] they don?t stay overnight,? Bugia says.
The cemetery is open 24 hours on Nov. 1 and 2 but people usually stay until 2 a.m.
Visitors also flock to the cemetery to hear Mass during the Feast of Christ the King and during Holy Week.
The staging of the the senakulo (staged presentation of Christ?s last days), is also held here, filling the cemetery with people until Palm Sunday.
The usual guests at the cemetery are high school students on a field trip or architecture students studying the design structure.
?We?ve never had a day when we didn?t have visitors,? Bugia says.
She and the shrine guide welcome the guests with a brief lecture on Nagcarlan?s history before giving them a tour of the crypt.
During ordinary days, the underground cemetery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It is maintained by the National Historical Institute although ownership remains with the Catholic Church. No fees are collected from visitors.
While there is no national hero buried here, Bugia says the primary purpose of keeping the underground cemetery is to preserve the past.
?We want to educate the public on what happened here that brought about the country?s independence,? she says. ?We want to teach the youth to care for the sacrifices of our heroes.?