Iloilo’s Cemeteries for heritage tourism?

In Iloilo, there is now a growing awareness of the heritage tourism value of our colonial churches and the pre-war commercial buildings in downtown Iloilo. When guests come to visit, we bring them to these sites.

Little do we know that here exists still another architectural genre that further confirms our rich Ilonggo cultural heritage. Perhaps, it is unthinkable to see cemeteries as tourist attractions. The description “Spanish-period cemeteries” sounds rather morbid to many. But yes, cemeteries and art do mix.

Based on my intensive research many years back, not just one but eight colonial stone cemeteries of artistic significance have survived in Iloilo province. This implies that there was a conscious desire among the Augustinian friars of Iloilo to construct cemeteries of a distinct character. These eight extant cemeteries are in Oton, Dingle, Janiuay, Sta. Barbara, Pototan, Cabatuan, Miagao and San Joaquin.

Situated on elevated ground, the cemeteries of Janiuay and San Joaquin call attention to themselves. The rest, however, may seem boring to the uncritical eye. Only upon closer inspection will these cemeteries reveal their secrets.

Oton

oton cemetery
The original brick tile roofing of Oton cemetery before these were thrown away and replaced with a concrete slab (photo taken in 1995). photo by Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay

Among the eight, the cemetery of Oton is believed to be the oldest, probably built in the early or mid 19th century. From the exterior, it does not appear to have been from the Spanish period. The obvious proof of its colonial origin is found some 30 meters from the entrance. It is a circular stone capilla (funerary chapel) with tejas (brick tiles) roofing. This tejas roof used to be its greatest asset. I say “used to” because all these antique tejas were thoughtlessly disposed of sometime in 1996. Now, what you will see is a rough cement slab.

Dingle

dingle cemetery
The roofless hexagonal capilla of Dingle in 1995. photo by Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay

Dingle cemetery was initiated by Fray Fernando Llorente when he was parish priest of Fingle from 1865-1874. Like Oton, Dingle cemetery does not show any sign of artistry from the outside, probably due to renovation done in the 70s by the parish priest. Inside the cemetery grounds, however, one is greeted by a huge capilla of creamy limestone. The Dingle capilla is unique for its hexagonal shape. In Christian symbolism, six is the number of creation and perfection.

Janiuay

Inaugurated in 1884, Janiuay cemetery was hailed as the most artistic cemetery in the entire Philippines. Fray Fernando Llorente spearheaded the ambitious project. (From Dingle, Fr. Llorente was assigned to Janiuay from 1874-1888). Its inauguration was a grand affair with the Archbishop of Manila, Msgr. Pedro Payo, as guest of honor.

Situated on elevated ground, the cemetery has three grand staircases which dramatically lead to three arched entrance gates. Life-size stone statues lined the entrance. A seven-foot cross was located between the main entrance and the capilla. This solid limestone block from the mountains of Dingle was hauled by 52 carabaos and carved on site. Of course, the cemetery’s crowning glory is its octagonal capilla. (Eight is the number of the resurrection.) Like Dingle’s capilla, it had lancet-shaped doors and windows, design elements from Gothic architecture, as well as exquisite stone and wood carvings. Manila artisans worked on the interiors.

At present, the Janiuay cemetery is only a shadow of its formal self. The badly weathered limestone blocks have turned dull and dirty. The stone statues and the giant cross are long gone. Nevertheless, taking in the majestically elevated facade and climbing its steps is a must-do experience for visitors.

Santa Barbara Cemetery

santa barbara cemetery

No trace of an original capilla exists. What is special about Sta. Barbara, though, is the stone tablet found just above the arched entrance. On this is inscribed in Kinaray-a: ‘IG-AMPO NIÑO CAMI, CAR-ON SA AMUN, BUAS SA IÑO.” Whether this was meant to be threatening or humorous is for the living to interpret. In addition to this, Sta. Barbara’s wrought iron gate and fence grilles set on brick are other points of interest.

Pototan Cemetery

pototan cemetery
photo by Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay

The date 1894 (probably the inauguration date) is found above the iron gates of Pototan cemetery. At first glance, the archway appears rather plain. But look closely and see the symbol of the Augustinian order (flaming heart pierced by an arrow) cleverly inserted among the pill-shaped mouldings.

Another important find in Pototan is its well-preserved stone cross marker. Carved rays frame the center of this cross onto which a rose design and the letters INRI are incised. On All Saint’s Day, people light candles at the base of this cross.

Cabatuan Cemetery

cabatuan cemetery
Cabatuan’s capilla with a Romanesque touch (1995). photo by Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay

The cemetery of Cabatuan can boast of its nearly perfect square layout with an area of 28, 930 sq.m. The newspaper El Eco de Panay covered its February 4, 1894 inauguration. Located on a plain, Cabatuan cemetery has three entrance archways like Janiuay’s. At its main entrance is a stone tablet inscribed with: ‘HATAGI SIYA O GINUO SANG CAPAHUAYAN NGA DAYON.’ The octagonal capilla of once creamy limestone has three arched openings. Above these are identical stone carvings of a combined martyr’s palm and skull-and-crossbones motif. This complex design is only found in Cabatuan.

Miagao Cemetery

miagao cemtery
photo by Rex Dianala

Many may be aware that Miagao church is one of the four Philippine churches declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, few people know of Miagao’s other treasure. The town’s exemplary contribution to cemetery architecture is its capilla with an all-brick dome. No other cemetery still extant had the boldness to build a dome of brick. After more than a hundred years, this media naranja remains intact. How the workers were able to lock each brick into place is a feat of engineering.

Today, however, the capilla is in grave danger. Wide cracks are visible on the capilla walls. After the major earthquake of 1991 shook the building’s foundation, fine cracks started appearing on the walls. Now, these cracks have become pronounced gaps. It would be a miracle if the capilla survives another major shake.

Built in the 1890s, the Miagao capilla exhibits Romanesque influence in its three identical arched openings and two circular windows. Stone urns rest on eight corners around the dome. An interesting capilla design is the stone relief of concentric mouldings with the “skull-and-crossbones” motif at the center. The combination brick and ochre-colored limestone (red sandstone to the locals) gives the capilla a charming effect.

san joaquin cemetery
photo by Rex Dianala

Built at the twilight of Spanish rule, San Joaquin cemetery was initiated by Fray Mariano Vamba, the last Augustinian parish priest of the town. Inaugurated in 1892, the cemetery of San Joaquin lies on elevated ground that affords a breathtaking view of the sea. Terraced stone steps culminate at the cemetery’s crowning glory—its capilla, sumptuously decorated with stone carvings of a distinct floral and leaf pattern.

Aside from the awe-inspiring chapel, the entrance archway gives San Joaquin added aesthetic appeal. Carved on the base of the pediment (the triangular space above the entrance) is a man’s head in profile alongside a growing plant. A half circle encloses these figures and strong diagonals radiate from it like rays of the sun. This can be read as new life springs forth after death.

Back in 2002, the stonework above the capilla entrance collapsed and the other sides brashly invaded by balete roots were expected to follow suit. The once breathtaking structure lay in a heartrending, hopeless state.

But the people of San Joaquin must love their camposanto so much since a fund drive was begun in 2005. This was initiated by the town’s parish priest , Fr. Manuel Sevilla and lay leader Eva Cerdeña plus the full support of their town mayor Ninfa Garin. Amazingly, in less than a year, the badly damaged capilla has been rehabilitated, not by external entities but San Joaquinhons themselves living here and abroad. This was not for show. The San Joaquinhons were motivated by their desire to keep sacred the resting place of their kin and to see a landmark of their hometown preserved for future generations.

Heritage tourism advocates just that: to preserve and promote a place mainly because its people find it significant in their lives. They value their structures not for the money it will bring them (that is only an offshoot) but because they find them too important to neglect and to lose.

Iloilo has a rich architectural heritage. Many provinces in the Philippines may brag about its old churches but only Iloilo can proudly say that here, we have more than just churches. More than their tourism potential, though, these stone cemeteries form part of Iloilo’s precious built heritage. They are tangible documents of history. Surely, we would like our children and children’s children to have a visible link with their roots. These cemeteries in brick and stone are testaments to our forebears’ sacrifice. Indi madali ang pagdagyiao sang aton mga katigulangan sa patio. Without their hard work, no cemetery worthy of appreciation would have been built. Thus, it is our obligation to preserve what they have handed down to us.

Article sourced from “An Art Historical Study of Eight Spanish Colonial Stone Cemeteries in Iloilo” by Professor Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay.