Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery: a burial ground filled with sacred art and song

La imagen puede contener: nubes, cielo, hierba y exterior

Last month’s History Month concluded with a conference on colonial period cemeteries which was held at the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery. It is unfortunate that it was the only history conference that I was able to attend, but I think that it was still worth it since I was with two like-minded individuals who were highly knowledgeable with Catholic art.

Since I had been to the place numerous times, I was thinking of wowing both Maurice Joseph Almadrones and Rafael Vicho with whatever interesting stuff that I know of the place. But it was the other way around: they astounded me with their vast knowledge of sacred art, architecture, and music that I didn’t even know existed in the said heritage site. Sometimes, history is not just about dates, events, and personalities. It can also be about art and song.

Please welcome this blog’s first guest blogger, my friend Maurice, as he explains to us his survey of the place. Mao’s observations are perhaps the most detailed descriptions one would encounter on the Internet regarding this unique cemetery. Frequent visitors ⁠—including the NHCP itself⁠— might be in for a delightful surprise.

All photos on this blogpost also belong to Mao, except for the last one at the bottom which was taken by Rafael.

Without further ado…

La imagen puede contener: cielo y exterior

* E * L * F * I *L * I * P * I * N * I * S * M * O *

Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery: A Burial Ground Filled With Sacred Art and Song
Maurice Joseph Almadrones

Last August 31, a rainy Saturday, was my first time to explore Nagcarlán. Despite my bouts of sickness, I really needed to give myself some time to relax. While touring the mountain town, my knee was hurting like there’s no tomorrow. But I had no choice but to walk, right?

When I was a boy, we always passed by the underground cemetery whenever we were to go to Liliw, but I never really gave much thought to see it. So I took the chance to explore it when I attended a lecture there by Asst. Prof. Michelle S. Eusebio on “Colonial Period Cemeteries as Filipino Heritage”. Since the conference was part of History Month, it was hosted by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).

La imagen puede contener: cielo y exterior

Here are my observations on the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery:

1. Besides it being a picturesque place (I’m looking at you, plain tourists), and of course a historical witness to the schemes of the rebellion against Spain, there is much artistic, religious, and socio-cultural value to the place.

a. The cemetery is made from bricks that were most likely produced outside the southern Tagálog region. This testifies to the wealth of the parochial community of the area. Notice that places to the northwest of Banajao have more brick structures compared to the southeast starting from Majayjay to Lucbán and down to Lucena which has more adobe.

b. The cemetery is octagonal (ochavado) in shape. Now, before anyone starts commenting that the octagon “is a testament to our multiculturalism citing Chinese influence” which is also a factor, it is also a Christian symbol of perfection, alluding to the creation and resurrection or “Octava Dies” or “octave” which is actually the full circle of a feast or of creation and life itself. The ancients constructed their baptismal fonts and baptistries in this shape.

c. The mortuary chapel, being preserved compared to many other examples in the region, has an ample seating capacity. Its walls are adorned with azulejos (blue-colored tiles) and baldosas (floor tiles) which were usually imported. Same tiles are seen finishing off the mensa (table) of the stone altar attached to the retablo designed for when Mass was still offered facing God with the people (sorry, Pampanga liturgists). The very same tiles are seen in the nearby parish church.

La imagen puede contener: interior

d. The walls have wooden trims, moldings, and cornices, sometimes mixed in with the masonry trimmings. The ceiling is of a hardwood arched frame with painted panels.

e. The ceiling and the walls were painted in bright colors of orange, gray, cobalt/Prussian blue, yellow, green, and purple, perhaps to contrast the trend of parish churches sporting trompe-l’œil in monochromatic tones. Or maybe to add some color to contrast with the somberness of the rites of the Requiem Masses and Absolutions done in the chapel. The same trompe-l’œil palette is employed to create a faux vaulting in the crypt, also brandished in azulejos.

f. The painted trompe-l’œil false windows inside the chapel have fragments of verses from the Office of the Dead (technically Divine Office / Liturgy of the Hours) for the commemoration of the faithful departed. The fragments are of “Domine, quando veneris judicare terram, ubi me abscondam a vultu irae tuae? Quia peccavi nimis in vita mea” (O Lord, when thou comest to judge the world, where shall I hide myself from the face of thy wrath? For I have sinned exceedingly in my life).

The opposite wall must have contained the next part which reads: “Commissa mea pavesco Et ante te erubesco, Dum veneris judicare, noli me condemnare, Quia peccavi nimis in vita mea” (I dread my sins, I blush before thee: When thou comest to judge, do not condemn me, For I have sinned exceedingly in my life). These were taken by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina himself for a composition.

La imagen puede contener: personas sentadas e interior

g. The retablo quaintly frames a niche made from masonry and painted simply which contains space for the Santo Entierro (Holy Burial) which is still there. The crucifix on top looks as if it is not the original one intended for the retablo. It seems like the retablo also has a missing top to it; perhaps it may have been overestimated so the top was never realized since it was too tall for the ceiling.

La imagen puede contener: interior

The wooden gradas (gradines) or steps on the altar are devoid of any flourish compared to the retablo sporting Corinthian columns. The retablo itself is reminiscent of the neoclassical style in vogue during the 19th century. The floral detail is crowned by a palm (symbol of victory) and roses / passion flowers (symbol of love / the Passion of Our Lord) intertwined. The gradas have lost the original metal candeleros (candlestick holders).

h. The altar of the chapel, as mentioned earlier, is finished off by azulejos on the mensa. It is still perfect for traditional Latin Mass to be offered. However, as inquired from the curators, the chapel has nearly zero chance of being granted such Mass, thus weaning it from its original function as a place of prayer, which is sad for most heritage places outside churches. They just become display pieces.

2. Going down the portal to the right of the chapel is the stairwell to the crypt. The wall above the stairway’s second landing has fragments of a poem. Sadly, it has deteriorated like much of the artwork found throughout the chapel due to natural humidity, rainwater seepage, vandalism, and of course, human body heat and flash photography, exactly the same problems that the Catacombs in Rome is experiencing. Historian Pepe Alas has tediously researched the poem which reads:

Ve espíritu mortal, 
lleno de vida
hoy visitaste felizmente este refugio.
Pero después que tu te vayas,
Recuerda que aquí tienes un lugar
de descanso preparado para tí.

No hay ninguna descripción de la foto disponible.

(Translation:
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.)

No trace of the author exists, but we can only theorize that perhaps a local poet or the parish curate himself may have composed it. It is a very consoling thing to read as one accompanies the dead to be buried in a place of eternal peace.

La imagen puede contener: interior

3. The crypt chapel features:

a. A stone retablo and altar which has a mensa finished off in brown baldosa and has a niche for an image, or perhaps a tall crucifix. Gradines are absent, hinting perhaps that the candeleros, a pair usually rested on the mensa itself. Evidently someone bore a hole on the body of the altar, perhaps in search of some “treasure” inside, out of curiosity, or because of the testimonies of locals that a tunnel underneath exists which connects the chapel to the parish church of San Bartolomé which is about a kilometer away.

La imagen puede contener: interior

b. Some prominent Nagcarleños are still buried inside including two priests nearest the altar who died in the early part of the 20th century. The others have markers or lápidas that feature art nouveau and neoclassical designs of the early 20th century. The best lápidas in the embossed style of carving seem to come from the talleres (studios) of Manila.

We have not found any marker from the 19th century. Maybe it’s because up until recently the niches were reusable, or maybe the Katipunan rebellion and the American Occupation as well as grave robbers swept away all vestiges of older markers, including the dead.

c. The walls and the vaulted ceiling are painted in the same palette as the chapel above. Although the plaster and paint are deteriorating slowly. We were able to take a couple of photos before an NHCP caretaker approached us informing us that photography was no longer allowed in the crypt ⁠— either for the art’s safety OR perhaps our own. 👻

d. The elevated floor of the crypt altar and the stairs were decked in azulejos.

e. To the right facing the altar is a 3×4 meter space, like another side chapel but with no graves and no evidence of a liturgical function. However, the floor contains a 1×1 meter bare area devoid of azulejos. We suspect that it might be a blocked entrance to an ossuary for the disinterred dead (taken out of their plot or niche after dues were not renewed, or to free space for new bodies), or another structure or chapel might be underneath, or perhaps it is an entrance to the rumored tunnel.

f. To the left of the altar is a seemingly blocked up arched doorway hinted by the color difference of the plaster or palitada, and in older photographs, mildew take the shape of the arch. This might be an entrance to another chapel or perhaps the rumored tunnel leading to the parish church. Mr. Alas related that he got the testimony of one of the parish church’s caretakers who allegedly found a way to the tunnel starting from behind the altar but did not pursue finishing the length because it was too dark.

g. The stairwell is lighted and ventilated by one big window, the crypt by two small ones (the putrefying dead needed air too to help speed up decay).

4. The circumferential wall of the cemetery is unique for being a mostly decorative wall with grilled windows compared to other colonial cemeteries where walls double as niches. The windows allow fresh mountain air from Banajao to pass through to the grounds. The wall has detail on top all around akin to stone lacework or the parapets/roof detailing of Buddhist pagodas. There’s your oriental connection.

The outside niches and the chapel were featured in the 1976 film “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” where the opening scene shows the burial of Nicolás ‘Kulas’ Ocampo’s (played by Christopher De León) mother complete with funeral procession flowing out of the chapel, and the parish priest in black stole, cope, and a biretta for the internment at a niche to the left of the chapel (Kulas’ mother must have saved much to afford a niche!).

Thank you Professor Nick Deocampo for putting this film to our pedagogic canon.

5. The gate echoes the chapel’s fachada (façade) sans the espadaña (bell wall).

6. The chapel’s façade is in the baroque style with two levels. The second level has scroll designs and, of course, the espadaña designed to support a bell usually tolled when a burial procession enters. It also has two ocular windows; probably for ventilation purposes back in the day. The gate and the chapel have exterior niches however the statuary is missing.

La imagen puede contener: cielo y exterior

All in all, this mortuary chapel is of adobe and brick much like the nearby parish church.

La imagen puede contener: nubes, cielo y exterior

7. Of course, upon entering, we were greeted by a lush lawn with hedges, but perhaps underneath are the remains of people too since even the grounds were meant for the burial of people. Back in the day, the center of the field might have possessed an atrial cross (a requirement in the building of cemeteries and in the ritual of blessing the grounds for burial).

La imagen puede contener: 4 personas, incluido Maurice Joseph Maglaqui Almadrones, personas sonriendo, exterior y naturaleza

After the conference. Left to right: Rafael Vicho, Pepe Alas, Maurice Almadrones (author of this blogpost/article), and Dr. Michelle S. Eusebio (event lecturer).

Advertisements

A faded inscription at the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery

While Filipinos troop to the provinces to visit their beloved dead on All Saints’ Day, many still believe that the proper date of visiting them is on the following day, on All Souls Day. As the name connotes, All Saints’ Day is reserved for the Saints; All Souls Day should be consigned to our dearly departed.

In a video interview, however, Fr. Jojo Zerrudo (parish priest at the Most Holy Redeemer Church in Quezon City and current Catechetical Director and Exorcist of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cubáo) explains that during the Spanish times, Filipinos attended Mass in the morning of All Saints’ Day to honor the Holiest Souls of the Church. Only after lunch do they go to the cemetery to visit their beloved dead to offer candles, flowers, and prayers. There they stay for an overnight vigil , until All Souls Day.

Throughout the decades, the number of those who have been interred in cemeteries have significantly grown. Public cemeteries seemed no longer big enough to accommodate “newcomers”, prompting families to excavate old coffins and combine recently deceased loved ones with the bones or ashes of those who went ahead of them. Some enterprising businessmen see this plight as an opportunity to earn more money by establishing private cemeteries for those who can afford spacious and stylish graves.

PEPE ALAS

My wife walking towards the chapel. Below it is the underground cemetery.

Perhaps one cemetery in Filipinas that will not get overcrowded with corpses is the underground cemetery of Nagcarlán, La Laguna because it has been converted into a national historical landmark and museum on 1 August 1973 by former President Ferdinand Marcos (its official today is the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery Historical Landmark). It is the first and only one of its kind in the country as it was built in an arabesque style that, according to critics, is something very unique, aside from the fact that its crypt is 15 feet below the ground. The small chapel above it is used for funeral rites and is enclosed in a garden that stands above a hill and attached to the interior walls of the cemetery. The interiors of the chapel and crypt are adorned with elaborately designed white and blue tiles which look very similar to those at the nearby town church (Iglesia de San Bartolomé Apóstol), leading to the belief that there is an underground tunnel connecting both church and cemetery. The crypt contains more or less 36 niches and tombstones (whose inscriptions are Spanish, Tagalog, and some in English).

PEPE ALAS

Me at the crypt below the ground. Notice the white and blue tiles on the floor, said to be very expensive during the time of the cemetery’s construction. If memory serves right, they’re called Mazurka tiles.

While many stories have been written about this underground cemetery through the years, there’s one peculiar part of it that many people have failed to notice. Two flights down from the chapel is the small crypt —the actual underground cemetery— where it is perpetually dank and dark. On a wall right above the stairs is a faded Spanish inscription dedicated to the faithful departed…

PEPE ALAS

Ve espíritu mortal, lleno de vida
hoy visitaste felizmente este refugio.
Pero después que tu te vayas,
Recuerda que aquí tienes un lugar
de descanso preparado para tí.

(Translation:
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 inscription is in danger of disappearing forever if not restored by experts. Although flash photography is prohibited to protect the old markings and paint on the walls and tombstones, it is not enough to conserve what needed to be conserved as the place is not safe from humidity.

The crypt of this underground cemetery is historic because it was a secret meeting place for the Katipuneros in the 1890s. It was here where the historic Pact of Biac-na-Bató was planned by Pedro Paterno and General Severino Taiño in 1897.

Since its construction in 1845 by Fr. Vicente Velloc, the same Franciscan friar who supervised the town church’s reconstruction and restoration on that same year (that should explain the similar tiles),  Nagcarlán’s underground cemetery has been used as a public cemetery until 1981. It has since become a tourist spot.

The forested municipality of Nagcarlán is approximately two hours away from Metro Manila, from Alabang, Muntinlupà City by car (or 99 kilometers south of Manila via the City of San Pablo, La Laguna). The historic site of the municipality is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Admission is free.

PEPE ALAS

And no, it is not haunted.

All photos in this blogpost were taken on 17 April 2012.

Correct demonyms for Lagunenses

Correct Demonyms in La Laguna Province / Gentilicios Correctos en La Laguna

Official seal of Laguna

LA LAGUNA = LAGUNENSE

1. Alaminos = Alaminense
2. Bay = Bayeño
3. Biñán = Biñense (Biñanin may be acceptable since the name of the town is not Spanish)
4. Cabuyao = Cabuyeño
5. Calambâ = Calambeño
6. Calauan = Calaueño
7. Cavinti = Cavinteño
8. Famy = Calumpañguin (the town’s original name is Calumpang)
9. Kalayaan = Loñgoseño (the town’s original name is Loñgos)
10. Lilio/Liliw = Lilioeño/Liliweño
11. Los Baños = Bañense
12. Luisiana = Luisiense
13. Lumbán = Lumbeño
14. Mabitac = Mabitaqueño
15. Magdalena = Magdalense
16. Majayjay = Majayjayin
17. Nagcarlán = Nagcarlañgin
18. Paeté = Paeteño
19. Pagsanján = Pagsanjeño
20. Pañgil = Pañgileño
21. Páquil = Paquileño
22. Pila = Pileño
23. Rizal = Paulino (the town’s original name is Paulî)
24. San Pablo = San Pablense
25. San Pedro Tunasán = San Pedrense
26. Santa Cruz = Santa Cruzense
27. Santa María = Santa Mariense
28. Santa Rosa = Santa Rosense
29. Sinilóan = Siniloeño
30. Victoria = Victoriense