LANDSCAPES OF THE DEAD: COLONIAL CATHOLIC CEMETERIES AND THE POLITICS OF BURIALS

Graves in Paco Park. Image from Fighting in the Philippines by Neely, Frank Tennyson. 1899. Digitized by the Boston Public Library.

Undoubtedly, the entrance of the Spanish colonization in the Philippines reconfigured the social geography of the natives within the archipelago. For the ease of evangelization and colonization, the reducción policy physically relocated them into centralized localities and compact administrative units that was within the hearing distance of the church bell. This policy, designed to “reduce” the natives as subjects of the royal and the ecclesiastical, became the main political and religious thrust of the Spanish colonial agenda. However, scholars have overlooked another important feature of the reducción policy which “imposed a new spatial setting dictated by both spiritual and vital material requirements”: the resettlement of the dead. As Xavier Huetz de Lemps, professor in the Department of History at the Université Côte d’Azur, claims, the resettlement of the dead was equally as important as the resettlement of the living for the Spanish missionaries.


In his professorial address titled “A Matter of Grave Concern: Burial Sites and Funeral Rites in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines,” published in our June 2021 issue, Huetz de Lemps examines the Spanish colonial policies on burials and graveyards in the Philippines from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. He tries to sketch the colonial cemetery in four dimensions: location, spatial planning, ethnic and social differentiation, and political and religious conjunctures. In his analysis, Huetz de Lemps demonstrates how the Catholic cemetery, particularly its geographic circumstance, became a bone of contention between the ecclesiastical and secular authorities that reflected the “enormous complexity of colonial society.”

For the Spanish missionaries, burials were as crucial as baptisms in the battle against paganism and the “irreversibility” of native evangelization. Corpses of Christian colonial subjects were interred within the church’s premises in a space called the churchyard (campo santo). This churchyard spatial setting was derived from the belief that “the cemetery was not the final resting place of individual persons but of a Christian community waiting collectively for the Resurrection.” Churchyard burials were thus a symbolic representation of a successful evangelization. However, Huetz de Lemps stresses that this burial policy in the Philippines was merely a “transpacific continuation” of the missionary work that started in South America, which imported the Western parish cemetery model from the medieval period.

According to Huetz de Lemps, the markings of the social differentiation of the dead in the Philippines were much less visible than in European cemeteries. Churchyard burials were primarily differentiated by age, between adults (adultos) and children below 7 years old (párvulos). Other differentiations included burial fees (e.g., ₱2 for Spanish infants, ₱1.50 for mestizos, and ₱1 for indios) and location (e.g., inside the church, in niches, or in the earthen part of the churchyard). But even if these burials “appeared to have been rather egalitarian,” certain population groups were denied access to cemeteries, such as the non-Catholics (called infidels, pagans, gentiles, and the heretics).

Although churchyard burials eventually became a “widely accepted norm” at the end of the eighteenth century, other natives deviated from these practices. Huetz de Lemps remarks that the “domination of the church on burials … was not as absolute as generally assumed.” In 1818, the bishop of Cebu noted that the Filipinos “continued to bury bodies secretly with their ancestors,” remote from the Catholic churchyard. Meanwhile, the high level of underregistration in the parish burial registers of Tiagao (Bikol) demonstrated that not all the dead had a church burial. These anomalies suggest the possible resistance of the natives against Catholic burial culture, the persistence of pre-Hispanic practices, and the manifestation of a “not-so-strong Christianization of the Filipino worldview.”

Changing attitudes toward the traditional Catholic notions of burial practices emerged in the opening years of the nineteenth century, as Spanish secular authorities began to intervene in the religious sphere. Influenced by Enlightenment principles on hygiene and sanitation, they now viewed the clustering of burials within church premises as a “direct threat to public health,” as it was believed during this time that decomposing corpses “generated morbid miasma.” Hence, secular authorities saw the need to separate the dead as much as possible from the living. Beginning in 1804, they issued measures to prohibit burials in churches and relocate graveyards to the peripheries—further necessitated by the rapid diffusion of epidemic diseases, particularly cholera, that ravaged the archipelago throughout the nineteenth century. The displacement of cemeteries, however, proved to be more arduous because of the clergy.

Indeed, church authorities provided resistance against this new “necrogeography.” They made concessions in order to maintain their “exclusive jurisdiction over the cemeteries” and preserve the tradition embedded in the traditional churchyard setting. One means of retaining control of the cemetery and undermining sanitary arguments was to “invest in churchyard renovation” or to relocate the churchyard itself away from the town center. In 1882 when Gov. Gen. Fernando Primo de Rivera decreed the immediate closure of the remaining churchyards in Manila and the opening of the La Loma necropolis due to a cholera outbreak, church authorities still found ways to reopen churchyards or relocate their parish cemeteries in La Loma, but separated from the new municipal cemetery, after the health crisis. Nonetheless, religious matters remained the central concern of the clergy. Huetz de Lemps notes that one of the arguments that the priests used against La Loma was the “promiscuity” between the graves of the Catholics and the “infidels.” For them, the triumph of the “true” Catholic faith vitally rested on maintaining tradition.

In this conflict, non-Catholic foreign minorities also intervened, particularly the Chinese and Protestant communities. Since they were initially deprived of church burials and now because of their growing number and economic weight, the “search for a modus vivendi” became necessary for both the secular and church authorities. Although there were differences in the “modalities of intervention,” cemeteries for the Protestants (with the help of European diplomacy) and the Chinese (that mixed Catholics and non-Catholics, which was relatively more conflictive) were established and institutionalized in the latter half of the century.

Despite these tensions between the secular and church authorities, more cemeteries were nonetheless relocated to the outskirts of towns due to the increasing pressure exerted by the former on the latter.


According to Huetz de Lemps, the burial issues revealed the fractures within the major stakeholders of this crisis, thus reflecting the “extreme complexity of late–nineteenth–century Philippine society.” By the 1880s, cemeteries became one of the battlegrounds in the war against friar power. In 1887, several colonial authorities advanced an offensive against traditional Catholic funerals and went “far beyond all the former regulations” to try to dismantle the clergy’s necropower by attempting to secularize funerals. But this offensive was only an “exception to the rule.” The top secular and ecclesiastical authorities still collaborated to “pacify their subordinates” and remained “mutually dependent” as they were perfectly aware of the risks of politicizing the burial issues in the face of a “nascent Philippine nationalism.”


On the other hand, the ilustrados (enlightened Filipinos) also identified the burial question as “one of the many manifestations” of the despotic-like power of the Spanish friars. Inspired by Enlightenment sensibilities and cognizant of the local and imperial controversies regarding burials, they strongly advocated for the burial and funeral regulations issued by the secular authorities as a means of eroding clerical and friar power. In addition, the Propagandists also denounced the friars’ greed with regard to burial fees and how they used their necropower to their advantage. These attacks, Huetz de Lemps notes, reveal the “growing distancing of Philippine cultural elites from the Catholic religion, or at least from its traditional manifestations.” However, this “disenchantment of the world” also created internal gaps among Filipinos, between those who remained faithful to folk Catholicism and those who adopted and embraced the “European modernist discourse.”

Moreover, there was also a “great complexity of the positions” taken by the clergy with regard to death and death rituals. While anticolonial sentiments emerged due in part to the tensions between the Spanish friars and the native clergy, Huetz de Lemps remarks that the “preservation of the parish churchyards could have been more of a convergence point than a bone of contention.” He provides a “transversal” example in the 1858 circular issued by the archbishop of Manila to formalize traditional funeral processions. This offensive against “baroque funerals,” which consisted of grandiose and pious funeral processions that were considered “indecorous,” was interestingly supported by the municipal authorities (who were guided by sanitary imperatives) in conjunction with the clergy (who advocated for a “less demonstrative religiosity”). Although they differed in their objectives, both the municipal and church authorities “coincided in their disgust at folk traditions they deemed disrespectful of the dead.”

The intricate historical realities and processes that surround the dead provide much ground for further study and inquiry. For Huetz de Lemps, this professorial address is only meant to “provide a starting point, a global chronological framework, and an inventory of issues” that other scholars can probe deeper into. Indeed, excavating these landscapes of the dead could potentially unearth new insights and open various doors for Philippine historiography.


Read the full article of Xavier Huetz de Lemps in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 69, number 2, 2021.

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