Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The cemetery in Sibonga

with 66 comments

Sibonga*, on the east coast of Cebu, is Eve’s home town. On none of my previous trips had I gone to the town’s cemetery, but on the morning of December 15th we walked over there for a visit. From my time in Honduras I’d learned that cemeteries in poor countries are likely to be very different from those in the United States and other wealthy countries, so what I found in Sibonga didn’t surprise me. It may, however, surprise you or even disturb you. With that caveat, here’s a photo essay showing parts of Sibonga’s cemetery.

The boy shown below cutting off coconuts in a tree at the edge of the cemetery seemed an early candidate for membership as he stood barefoot on the tops of two metal poles to which electric wires were attached.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

* Most languages have at least the five vowels [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u]. Cebuano is unusual in that it reduces that basic set to three vowels: a native speaker doesn’t distinguish between [e] and [i], nor between [o] and [u]. As a result, in spite of the spelling Sibonga, people pronounce the name as if it were Sibunga.

Also notice the strange fact that although the inhabitants of the Philippines speak their various native languages almost all the time, when it comes to signs, posters, billboards, and even to tombstones, the large majority of those are written in English. Some of today’s pictures provide examples of that.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 17, 2020 at 4:51 AM

66 Responses

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  1. Fascinating photographs as usual! English is prevalent because in 1899 Philippine attempts to finally free itself from Spanish rule ended when The United States took possession of the Philippines from Spain. From Wikipedia: “. . . The war resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipino civilians, mostly due to famine and disease. Some estimates for total civilian dead reach up to a million. The war, and especially the following occupation by the U.S., changed the culture of the islands, leading to the disestablishment of the Catholic Church in the Philippines as a state religion, and the introduction of English to the islands as the primary language of government, education, business, industry, and, in future decades, among upper-class families and educated individuals. . . ” My Filipino husband speaks 5 Philippine dialects, and perfect English.


    January 17, 2020 at 7:09 AM

    • I’m aware of that unhappy period in Philippine history. What had been unusual up until then was that even after several centuries of Spanish colonial rule Spanish never became the language of most of the people the way it did in Central and South America, where now only a small fraction of the population still speaks an indigenous language. In the Philippines it was primarily Catholic clergy and upper-class Filipinos who spoke Spanish. As with most things in life, there was a good side and a bad side to the American takeover of the Philippines. On the good side, one of the first things the Americans did was establish a system of public schools in the Philippines because Americans valued universal education in a way the Spanish never did. Ultimately that led to a large number of Filipinos learning English (of course to varying degrees). English-speaking visitors to the Philippines have a big advantage in being able to read most signs and documents even if they don’t speak any Philippine language.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 8:32 AM

      • …..I’m so enjoying your visual journey to places of such beauty. And this exchange/conversation is very edifying. My three month-long visits were only to Bulacan, so I never saw what you’re helping us see!


        January 17, 2020 at 12:04 PM

        • My experience with Bulacan was limited to passing through on a bus from Manila to Baguio in 1987. On later visits to the Philippines we saw little of nature, so on this visit we were eager to get to at least a few nature sites. You’ve seen the posts from Palawan, and there’ll be more of nature from Cebu and Bohol in the days ahead. That said, my experience of nature in the Philippines is still pretty limited.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 17, 2020 at 3:02 PM

    • One note about language: although Filipinos themselves speak of their various “dialects,” linguistically speaking they’re separate languages (some of which, Visayan, does have dialects within it). Yes, the languages of the Philippines are related, but some of them are as different and mutually incomprehensible as Portuguese and Romanian, which are both Romance languages. Other Philippine languages are close enough to each other that speakers can semi-understand each other. I’m reminded of an experience in Mallorca in 1985 when I went into a travel agency. The travel agent spoke in Spanish and the tourist ahead of me spoke in Italian, but the two could understand each other enough to transact business.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 19, 2020 at 5:43 AM

  2. Utterly fascinating.

    Michael Scandling

    January 17, 2020 at 8:14 AM

  3. The people of the Philippines have a peculiar custom of burying their dead. Great photos, Steve!

    Peter Klopp

    January 17, 2020 at 8:29 AM

  4. Yes, surprising!! Any idea why they leave their dead exposed like that. When they are placed in these “graves” are they left exposed to the elements to decompose in plain sight? Fascinating.

    Martha Goudey

    January 17, 2020 at 8:40 AM

    • At the time of burial it wouldn’t have looked this way. In later years, lack of money to maintain things leads to the conditions you see here. Some of the graves and memorials were in much better condition.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 8:54 AM

  5. This reminded me of an interesting article about various ossuaries around the world. Purposeful collections are quite different from what you’ve shown here, of course. Some of these markers are quite recent; other crypts, even those without a marker, obviously still are visited despite the passage of time. The one with the candles and flowers caught my eye.

    I know that in some places the bones of previous burials are pushed to the back of a crypt to make room for new ‘occupants.’ Is that the practice here? The spaces seem quite small — almost too small for a body. If that’s so, how are people buried there? I read that there are two sides to the Sibonga cemetery. I’m guessing that this is the public side.


    January 17, 2020 at 9:07 AM

    • Your linked article made me wonder—frivolously—if there are any ossuaries with bones of cassowaries.

      My understanding from Eve is that the dilapidated burial sites shown here come about when families can’t or won’t maintain them. As more space is needed for people who die, sometimes families consolidate remains of those long dead, as you surmised.

      You’re right that there are also private cemeteries where people pay more money to ensure that graves and mausoleums stay in good shape.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 2:54 PM

  6. Quite disturbing. I do enjoy a nosy around a churchyard, but not so keen on viewing the actual contents! Looks as though some of those spaces were well occupied. As for that young lad – yikes!


    January 17, 2020 at 10:38 AM

    • Yikes indeed! I don’t believe I’d ever seen skeletons in a cemetery. And yes, felt sorry for that kid who was taking such a risk.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 2:56 PM

  7. Very interesting photo essay … somber and thought-provoking!


    January 17, 2020 at 1:02 PM

    • It’s a different sort of photo essay for me. I’m pleased you found it somber and thought-provoking.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 3:05 PM

  8. Burial customs are so varied around the world and over time – in our country, it’s kind of surprising how relatively quickly cremations have become the most frequent choice, and apparently it’s increasingly accepted even among Jewish groups. I guess in some areas of Asia, it’s almost always done that way.

    Robert Parker

    January 17, 2020 at 3:01 PM

  9. WHOA!!!! What photos! Very interesting post!

    M.B. Henry

    January 17, 2020 at 6:14 PM

    • In some ways this is closer to your kinds of posts than to my usual ones. It certainly caught your attention.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2020 at 9:35 PM

  10. That is really different! That boy is brave. I hope he got the coconut!


    January 17, 2020 at 7:03 PM

    • He probably got more than one. I didn’t watch long enough to know. We might ask whether the boy is brave or foolhardy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 18, 2020 at 6:44 AM

  11. Those are very different from any cemetery I’ve ever visited. Cemeteries take up a lot of space so that seems a bit economical land-wise. Given a choice of that kind of cemetery or cremation, which is our choice anyway, seems a better way to go. Having my skull open and on display wouldn’t be my first choice of eternal rest. It’s good though to see how other cultures deal with death.

    Steve Gingold

    January 17, 2020 at 7:06 PM

    • How other cultures deal with death is a big anthropological subject. Even though I’d seen somewhat run-down cemeteries in Honduras, I’d never seen anything like this one, with skeletons in plain view. Combining remains there is indeed a way for families to free up burial space that’s in short supply. I just found this statement about the Philippines on an American government website: “Burial in a public cemetery normally include a 5-year contract. If the contract is not renewed, the remains are exhumed and placed in a common grave, and the space is declared vacant for reoccupation.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 18, 2020 at 7:29 AM

      • Now there’s something to look forward to…a second hand grave. Exhumed seems a funny word. Probably more like swept out and bagged. There are so many variations between cultures and what is acceptable and what not. Years ago there was a knife fight in our town between two men from another culture over underwear being hung outdoors in plain sight of the neighbors. And I guess whenever traveling it is best to brush up on the culture and unacceptable behavior as dictated by the locals.

        Steve Gingold

        January 18, 2020 at 11:34 AM

        • I think the State Department website I quoted from is there for that very purpose: to acquaint Americans with some of the customs and the ways things work in each foreign country.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 18, 2020 at 2:45 PM

  12. First I thought some of the tombs must be very old, but the dates don’t bear that out. I wonder if stone is subject to faster decay because of the local climate. It seems to be happening rather fast.


    January 17, 2020 at 10:42 PM

    • Like you, I noticed that some of the inscriptions weren’t that old. Eve thinks you’re on to something: the year-round hot climate in the Philippines, including tropical storms and occasional typhoons, contributes to the dilapidation of the structures in cemeteries there. It’s probably also the case that for lack of money people build structures that aren’t as strong as they could be with better materials. The tombs of Eve’s relatives were in pretty good shape because she still has family there to maintain them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 18, 2020 at 7:37 AM

      • That makes perfect sense, Steve. The collection of bones is not so unusual, as ossuaries exist in many countries. What is, at least for some people’s sensibilities, is their presence in bright daylight, and without much ado.


        January 18, 2020 at 10:33 PM

        • Right. And if you’re a kid growing up there, you come to take it for granted that that’s how cemeteries are. American cemeteries must seem quite sterile by comparison.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 19, 2020 at 5:27 AM

          • I think the entire culture seems to have trouble accepting mortality, Steve.


            January 19, 2020 at 3:56 PM

            • I wonder if that’s because of how prosperous we’ve become and how far medicine has advanced. Americans in the 1800s lived a lot closer to death.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 19, 2020 at 7:29 PM

              • True, Steve, but each of us still has to die, and we don’t seem to want to acknowledge this. Few people die at home, and technology makes the entire process very removed and unreal.


                January 19, 2020 at 10:26 PM

  13. It’s fascinating to see a very different outcome than what we’re used to seeing here, nor is it anything like the cremations on the Ganges one sees in films about India or the sky burials of Tibet or any other burial practice I’ve seen. Apparently, until not so long ago, some local tribes in the Seattle area set corpses into canoes and hoisted them into trees.
    Your photos are beautiful in their own way, especially the 6th, 7th, and 8th are very poignant. Last year we visited a cemetery in an old village in the German countryside where some of my relatives lived and died. Those places cover hundreds of years and many generations. I believe the remains ultimately are mixed, but it’s all under the ground. This is different!


    January 18, 2020 at 8:31 PM

    • Different indeed, for me as well as you. In pictures 6 and 8 you get a feel for the way poor people wanting to decorate or pay tribute in a cemetery improvise with whatever they have at hand: plastic containers, glass jars, cans, pieces of scrap wood.

      I’m surprised that local tribes in the Seattle area would still recently have been setting corpses into canoes and hoisting them into trees. None of us would’ve been allowed to do that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 19, 2020 at 5:18 AM

  14. This is absolutely incredible to see! Thank you for sharing these cemetery photos. I hate to admit it, but morbid curiosity makes me really wonder how long a fresh grave stays securely covered before the opening loosens and falls. All the ones that are open appear to contain very old remains in the form of bare skeletons.

    Birder's Journey

    January 18, 2020 at 8:46 PM

    • Yes, it was quite a site. The macabre can be fascinating, and I understand your morbid curiosity. I expect people there could answer your questions, and no doubt Philippine scholars have researched burials and cemeteries there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 19, 2020 at 5:21 AM

  15. Very different and somehow sad as well


    January 18, 2020 at 8:58 PM

  16. The first photograph, with the small crypts, is visually fascinating. A curious custom.


    January 18, 2020 at 9:17 PM

  17. Wow; powerful post y images, but the finale leaves us with a smile in our hearts and a slight fear for the young lad! Of course he has his own personal angels watching over him!

    The browser is again loaded with ‘off-line reading’ material – much about weather, MS river rising, dam threatening to break in MS – which led to another ‘click bait’ which I followed – about a hunter being popped in the head by a copperhead snake – there are blizzards and earthquakes and volcanoes and wildfires and flooding – which makes this historic ‘ground zero’ area seem like a little oasis. Tis hotter than norm as if we’re closer to the sun – but all is quiet… and that’s all for this smoke signal for the day! (I’ll peruse each image when back at the apt, but again – lots happening in these images!)

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    January 19, 2020 at 1:28 PM

    • I don’t know if that kid had angels watching over him. I wonder how often a coconut cutter falls out of a tree. That would be bad enough, but the presence of electrical wires adds to the menace. From what you said, this was just one in a slew of potential or actual mishaps and disasters you’ve been encountering online. Returning to your little oasis sounds like a sane reaction. As for being closer to the sun, the earth actually is closer to the sun during the northern winter / southern summer—which is to say now. Happy perihelion to you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 19, 2020 at 4:04 PM

  18. Gosh Steve I’ve never seen anything quite like this! As for the young lad … phew, get down please!


    January 23, 2020 at 7:59 PM

    • I hadn’t seen anything like this, either. And yes, it was disturbing to watch the boy standing so precariously on those metal poles.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2020 at 8:39 PM

  19. I found these images greatly fascinating. I didn’t find anything morbid or disturbing about them – but I would have been horrified to see an actual body in the process of decay! I have never understood embalming, caskets and burial vaults. To me, it is pollution of mother earth.

    So did you purposefully put the “Steven Schwartzman” watermark on the crypt in the upper left-hand corner on that first photo? I did a double-take when I spotted it!!


    January 26, 2020 at 8:14 PM

  20. I admit this post did take me aback, but it is a very interesting one and a good reminder that not everyone does things the way we do. There is real beauty in these images.


    January 28, 2020 at 10:29 AM

    • I’m glad you were able to see it as you said in your last sentence. It’s for sure that people in some other parts of the world do things in ways that are quite different from ours. Cemeteries are good indicators of those differences.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 28, 2020 at 10:43 AM

  21. Your pictures are beautiful.


    January 28, 2020 at 12:22 PM

    • I see from your blog that you love cemeteries, so I understand why this post appeals to you. It’s not typical in this blog that’s devoted to nature, but once in a while I go outside my ostensible boundaries. Regardless of subject, a good photograph is a good photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 28, 2020 at 1:23 PM

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