Manila North Cemetery's 73-year-old gravekeeper | Inquirer News
Special Report

North Cemetery’s 73-year-old gravekeeper is too busy feeling grateful about her job

/ 05:00 PM October 30, 2019

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Aling Lucing, a gravekeeper at the Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

The arrival of workers from the Department of Public Services greeted the residents of Manila North Cemetery in the morning of Oct. 22. As part of the city government’s clearing operations for the approaching “Undas” season, men clad in blue dismantled flimsy stalls and obtrusive structures with hooked metal rods.

Those who live near the entrance of the cemetery were not so lucky, but for the ones who live further inside the cemetery, they had just enough time to be warned by fellow residents who had scrambled back on their bikes and motorcycles.

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Clearing operations at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

Seemingly unperturbed by the ensuing chaos was Lucina Cervantes, known as Aling Lucing to most, who continued to sweep dried leaves off the tombs with her walis tingting.


It seems morbid working with the dead, and much less live with them, but for Aling Lucing, the dearly departed have been her constant companions since she took root in the cemetery 38 years ago.

Like many others before her, Aling Lucing’s move to Manila was borne out of her family’s desperate search for a better life. She left Surigao City in Mindanao to follow her husband in Manila in 1981, bringing only one child with her while she left the other two in her sibling’s care. Since then, she and her husband worked in the cemetery as grave keepers.

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

“Pagdating ko dito naligaw-ligaw nga ako. Kung saan-saan akong lugar, hinahanap ko ang mister ko kasi ang sabi niya doon daw siya sa Bulacan, Pulilan,” she said. “Pagpunta ko doon wala naman, hanap ako nang hanap. Yun pala dito siya sa North Cemetery nakatira, hindi ko alam na andito pala siya, hanap ako ng hanap sa kaniya. Eh di nagsama na kami, dito nanirahan.”

(When I arrived here, I got lost. I had to go all around looking for my husband, because he said he was in Bulacan, in Pulilan. But he was not there so I kept looking. Turned out he lived here in North Cemetery, I did not know. We then lived together here.)

Aling Lucing has been living alone in a small mausoleum since her husband died in 2003. Her children, now adults themselves, do not live with her. She finds joy in tending to the 60 graves under her care, sweeping and scrubbing six days a week and only resting on Sundays. On this particular Tuesday morning, however, she had just finished giving one of the tombs a fresh coat. Her hands were covered with cream paint, thus she graciously refused to shake hands with anybody. For that task she did that day, she would earn P1,000.

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

It was only difficult in the beginning, she assured. One gets used to the work through time, until, of course, time catches up with them.


“Medyo may edad na rin ako, 73 na ako ngayon… Yung pag iskuba, pag hakot ko ng tubig, pagpasan, [nahihirapan] ako,” she said. “Di ko na kaya buhatin ang mabigat, ‘yung kaya ko lang bitbitin.”

(I am already quite old, I am 73 years old. I find it difficult to scrub, fetch water and lift heavy load. I can no longer carry heavy things, I only carry what I can.)

One grave a month earns Aling Lucing P50, which is the usual setup for most of the tombs she cares for. A few of the graves are paid for yearly, which earns her P600, and fewer still are mausoleums, which bring her P150 a month. Since she is considered a formal employee by the cemetery, Aling Lucing said she also gets referrals from the families she looks after to build tombs for others. There are times, too, when strangers would approach her on their own and ask for her services for their loved ones.

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

“Kilala kami dun, naka-record yung pangalan namin sa office… Halimbawa ‘yung alaga ko, may patay, pupuntahan ako nila, kokontratahin ko ganun halaga, P8,000. Nitso, gagawa, sa akin lahat. Permit, materyales, labor,” she said. “’Yung iba, may nagsabi, ‘Ale, ale, magpaalaga kami ng puntod namin. E di lumapit ako, ‘yun, kinakausap ako nila. Inuumpisahan ko na ‘yung pag-aalaga, nililinis ko na.”

(We are known there [in the office], our names are on record. If relatives of a deceased has another death in the family, they come to me and make an arrangement with me, [for example] for P8,000. The tomb, making one, I handle it all. The permit, materials, labor. Others would say, “Ma’am, we would like to request that you look after a tomb.” I accommodate them and talk to them. I then start with taking care of the tomb, I clean it.)

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

She believes in ghosts and being kind to the dead

Aling Lucing believes in ghosts. It would be hard not to, when the home she’s known the longest is a cemetery. But just like the difficulties that came with her job, her experience with the supernatural only lasted in the beginning.

For one, she remembered, when she and her husband had just arrived from the province, waking up at four in the morning to the sound of chains. Except, nobody was there.

“May narinig ako naglalakad na parang naghihila ng kadena. Ngayon, madaling araw ‘yun alas kwatro, sinilip ko walang tao.”

(I heard someone walking and sounding as if dragging a chain. That was very early in the morning, 4 a.m., I looked outside but no one was there.)

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

But it was her husband, she said, who received the ire of a ghost once when he played with a skull around the cemetery during a drunken stupor. Come night time, her husband was afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea.

“Nagpakita ‘yung [multo] sa kaniya, sumasayaw sa harap niya. Oo, totoo ‘yun. E di ngayon bumaba ako sa tinutulugan ko kasi sumigaw siya, ‘Day, tulong!’” said Aling Lucing. “Tao daw, tao. Kaluluwa. E di tiningnan ko dun, wala naman tao, siya lang ang pinapakita… Binigyan siya ng sakit.”

(The ghost showed itself to him, danced in front of him. Yes, it is true! I went down, rose from where I was sleeping, because I heard him scream, “Dear, help!” “There’s someone! Someone! A spirit!” I looked but there was nobody, the ghost only showed itself to him, made him sick.)

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

What she did next was the only thing she knew she ought to do. “Nanghingi ako ng tawad sa bungo, dun sa kaluluwa. Patawarin niya na lang po kasi napaglaruan kayo ng mister ko, pasensya na po. Nagtirik ako ng kandila. ‘Yun, natigil na ang pagsuka niya, pagtae.”

(I asked for forgiveness from the skull, from the ghost. I asked the spirit to just forgive my husband for fooling around, I said sorry. I lit a candle. That was when my husband got cured from vomiting and diarrhea.)

When she and her husband first arrived, a lot of human remains were scattered in the cemetery. These have lessened in recent years, she said, but at the time, exhumed bones would be placed in a sack so a new corpse would be buried in the grave.

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

The remains of the deceased are usually dug up from the grave when its kin fails to pay the annual fee or its “lease contract” has expired, as per an Inquirer report on October 2012. Graves in Manila North Cemetery can be rented for a minimum of 5 years, as per report, the cheapest going for around P900 for an apartment-style tomb. When a grave of the deceased is not renewed by the family, its remains are dug up and either transferred to another cemetery or buried in mass graves.

During her early years in the cemetery, Aling Lucing said the sacks of remains would be left around the cemetery grounds. Pesky children who lived nearby would then find the sacks and play with the bones, thus leaving them scattered.

“Ayun, kalat-kalat ang mga buto. Naawa nga ako, eh,” she said. “Sininop ko ‘yun. Nilagay ko ulit sa sako tapos tinabi ko, sinementuhan. Kawawa naman ‘yung patay, sinementuhan ko.”

(The bones were scattered all over the place. I felt pity. I picked them up, gathered them in a sack, kept them [in a tomb], then had it cemented. I felt pity for the dead.)

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Tombs at Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

Family visits beyond Undas

As it is almost “Undas”, Aling Lucing is never seen without her trusty walis tingting. Everyday, she makes sure she gets to go around the cemetery and cleans at least 30 tombs, especially in case their families would arrive. And when they do, she would bide her time before approaching them for payment.

Over 2,300 personnel of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority will be deployed during Undas this year, as per MMDA chairman Danilo Lim on Friday, Oct. 25. Last year, more than one million people flocked to Manila North Cemetery to visit their loved ones.

Aling Lucing is not fazed by the hordes of people who would be coming to the cemetery this year, nor is she dreading the amount of trash she and the other grave keepers would be cleaning afterwards. It is hard work they have been used to — and there is no complaint there, only, again, she finds joy.

“Natutuwa ako, natutuwa ako na mayroon akong libangan sa araw-araw kasi wala naman akong anak na maliit ke matanda na ako,” she said. “Ang libangan ko ang pagwalis-walis, paglinis-linis ng mga alaga.”

(I feel happy, I am happy that there is something I can be busy with everyday, especially since I no longer have little children, because I am already old. I am occupied by chores such as sweeping, cleaning and looking after the graves I take care of.)

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Aling Lucing, a gravekeeper at the Manila North Cemetery. Cepeda

Her ability to find happiness in what she does is returned by the families of the deceased she looks after, who come back every now and then to visit not just their loved ones but Aling Lucing herself.

“Natutuwa sila sa akin, ‘di raw pinabayaan ang puntod nila. ‘Nilinis ni Aling Lucing!’ [kaya] tuwang-tuwa sila,” she said. “Minsan nga may binibigay sila sa akin na regalo, natuwa sila sa puntod na pinturado na.”

(They are delighted by what I do, the graves of their loved ones are looked after. “It was cleaned by Aling Lucing!” They are so happy. Sometimes they give me gifts. They are happy to see the newly-painted tombs.)

The same goes for Christmas, when the families would once again return to visit their loved ones. In this time of year, they would bring food and share a feast with Aling Lucing. With this, it would be wrong to say Aling Lucing is ever really alone in life. She isn’t, not when people would often come back, asking for her.

“’Yung alaga ko na ‘yan, pagdating hinihintay talaga [ako], ‘Ay, ayan na si Aling Lucing! Ayan na si Nanay Lucing, halika na, hain na diyan para magkain na, kakain na tayong lahat andito na si Aling Lucing,’” she recalled. “Sama sama, hindi naman sila nandidiri sa akin. Mababait.”

(The relatives of a deceased whose grave I look after, when they arrive, they really wait for me. “Oh, there is Aling Lucing, there is mother Lucing! Come, let’s bring out the food, let’s eat, let’s all eat together, Aling Lucing is already here.” We are all together. They are not disgusted by me. They are kind.) JB


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