Paco Cemetery: Where We Pigeonhole the Dead

In the midst of the concrete jungle that is Manila lays the quiet refuge for the dead of long ago. The Americans, during their occupation of the Philippines, found this place so peculiar that one governor-general described it as the place for “pigeonholing our dead for future reference”.

The pigeonholes for dead now occupied by actual pigeons.

The pigeonholes are located in Paco Cemetery in the Paco District of the Manila.

My interest flared up again when I entered the walls of Cemeterio de Paco. It was like the first time, about a decade ago, when I visited the cemetery for a paper required in Panitikang Pilipino course. I believe that that first visit stirred my enthusiasm in Spanish Colonial Era architecture, history, and heritage left by our forefathers.

Paco Cemetery was built in response to the cholera outbreak that ravaged Manila in the late 18th Century. Maestro de Obras, Don Nicolas Ruiz prepared the plan while the construction work was supervised  by Don Jose Coll. The original cemetery, which actually is the inner wall, was finished on April 22, 1822.

Atop the wall of Paco Cemetery.

The population of the dead grew that another set of niches were needed. So in 1859, Gobernador-General Fernando de Norzagaray ordered the enlargement of the cemetery to 4,540 varas cuadradas (square yards). A Chinese builder won the contract for building the outer circular wall at the cost of 19,700 Pesos.

Many people consider cemeteries as scary places. Paco Cemetery is different. I didn’t felt afraid of the niches or the dead ashes they hold. In fact, Paco Cemetery is the site of many weddings.

Weddings in a cemetery is usually connected to “black weddings” but that is not the case in Paco Cemetery. Weddings held in that place are as solemn and joyous as the weddings in other churches.

St. Pancratius Chapel is a small chapel inside Paco Cemetery. It was named after a Roman citizen who was beheaded for the Faith. The chapel was meant for masses for the dead in the cemetery. Now, the chapel is beginning to be recognized for weddings.

The chapel and the cemetery were originally administered by a chaplain, a sacristan, and eight caretakers. The chaplain used to reside at a residence fronting Paco Cemetery, which is now occupied by the Paco Fire Station.

The chapel is now under the care of San Vicente de Paul Parish. Masses are held every Sunday while weddings may be scheduled from Monday to Sunday.

The beautiful garden of Paco Cemetery may be booked for garden receptions. The place is perfect for couples who wish a vintage ambience. Couples can even have their wedding photos atop the circular walls and I’ve seen beautiful photos shot in that place.

Couples who wish to have their wedding inside the Paco Cemetery should contact the National Parks Development Committee.

I am not the only person who visited Paco Cemetery during that afternoon. Most of the visitors were students from the nearby school and couples like this one:

They found the perfect place to promise their undying love. I bet their parents will not be pleased.

Vandals are also common visitors to Paco Cemetery. They truly don’t have any respect, even for the dead:

Internment in Paco Cemetery stopped in 1912 and most of the niches are empty. However, around 65 people, including 22 children, are still within the vaults within the walls.

Niches for infants and children.

Only the members of the aristocratic class, living in the walled city of Intramuros were allowed to be interred in Cemeterio de Paco.  Each niche cost 20 Pesos for three years, and subject for renewals. No one is allowed to own the niche in perpetuity.

Niche of one of the young residents of Paco Cemetery.

So what happens if the family failed to renew the rental? The answer is: EVICTION. The remains of the dead are removed from the vault and buried in the common grave at the back of the cemetery. This means that being aristocratic and rich while alive will not guarantee that your remains will be safe forever. Death, indeed, is the equalizer between the poor and the rich.

Actually, vault rental is not unique in Paco Cemetery. Most of the cemeteries in the Philippines practice this. There were even reports of evicted dead thrown as garbage by scrupulous cemetery administrators. 

If the aristocrats are placed in vaults then those who rebelled against the colonial government are buried in the cemetery grounds. I found two white crosses can be found in the area between the two walls that mark burial grounds of the four great persons in Philippine history: GomBurZa and Jose Rizal.

Between the inner and outer walls.

Filipino priests; Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, collectively known as the GomBurZa, were executed in 1872 by the colonial authorities because of their alleged involvement with the mutiny in Cavite.

GomBurZa's final resting place in Paco Cemetery.

Jose Rizal, then 10 years old, witnessed the execution of the three priests. He later wrote that GomBurZa’s death “awakened my imagination, and I vowed to devote myself to avenge such victims some day.” And he did avenge the three priests at but at a cost of his life. About 24 years after GomBurZa’s execution, Jose Rizal was executed at the same place as the three priests.

Spanish colonial authorities buried Jose Rizal’s remains in an unmarked grave in Paco Cemetery. They did this to prevent the revolutionaries from using Rizal’s body as a rallying point.

Jose Rizal's burial ground in Paco Cemetery.
The unmarked grave was later found by Narcisa, one of Jose Rizal’s elder sisters. She marked the grave with a marble slab inscribed with “R P J”, Jose Rizal’s initial in reverse. In 1912, Narcisa had the body exhumed hid it in her home in Binondo in an ivory urn until Jose Rizal’s remains were finally placed in his final resting place in Luneta Park.

GomBurZa and Jose Rizal were not the only notable persons who were interred in Paco Cemetery. Major General Henry Lawton, killed in the Battle of San Mateo, temporarily stayed in Paco Cemetery before he was sent to his final resting place in USA. Lawton is the highest-ranking American officer killed during the Philippine-American War.

Paco Cemetery is one of the most beautiful heritage sites in Manila. I actually enjoyed looking at the vaults even though some people consider it eerie. The thick walls filtered out the vehicular noise outside which made me think that I’m not in Manila. 


Information in blog post was obtained from the following sources:

1. Inscriptions and historical markers in Paco Cemetery.

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  1. another great and well restored place.. malapit lang ba ito sa Intramuros Ish?

  2. That sure is a nice looking place.


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