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Morbid Monday: Living with the Dead

Maestro della Maddalena di Capodimonte, "Maddalena penitente" (17th century), oil on canvasMaestro della Maddalena di Capodimonte, “Maddalena penitente” (17th century), oil on canvas (via Museo Regionale di Messina)

Attitudes toward corpses and death in 20th century Western society range from morbid fascination to forbidden subject. So it’s unusual when the news reports stories about people who are found living with a dead relative. Typically these tend to be people who are grieving and can’t let their loved one go, or who don’t want to report the death for fear of losing public assistance, or who simply have mental illness. It’s even more rare to find entire neighborhoods that live with the dead.

Communities of people who choose to live among the dead often do so for religious or economic reasons. The Aghori sadhus of India embrace death as part of their religion and rely on human remains for ritual and food. There are also large populations of people who dwell in cemeteries in Egypt and the Philippines for economic reasons. For these people there is nothing unusual about living among the dead since corpses and tombs are part of their communities.

Aghori sadhu in Nepal
Aghori sadhu in Nepal (photograph by Mike Behnken)

The Aghori sadhus are a group of Hindu holy men who are devoted to Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation, and immerse themselves in death and filth as part of their faith. They are considered social outcasts because their beliefs and rituals contradict orthodox Hinduism.

Most Aghori live in Varanasi, a city in northern India on the banks of the Ganges, that is believed to be the favorite city of Lord Shiva. Varanasi is closely associated with funerary rituals due to the belief that death and cremation at Varanasi brings salvation in the afterlife. The city has several ghats, or stone embankments, along the Ganges where Hindus cremate the bodies of their dead loved ones.

Funeral pyres on the GangesFuneral pyres on the Ganges (photograph by Dan Ruth)

The Aghori cover their bodies with cremation ashes from the ghats or pull corpses from the Ganges to use in their rituals. They use dead bodies as altars, consume the flesh, and use the bones to make bowls and jewelry. Unlike holy men from other Hindu sects who are vegetarians and abstain from alcohol, the Aghoris will drink alcohol and cannibalize dead bodies. They believe that eating the flesh from a corpse will give them special powers. While embracing death for the Aghori is a religious choice, for others it’s an economic one.

A tomb turned into a home in Cairo's City of the DeadA tomb turned into a home in Cairo’s City of the Dead (via Wikimedia)

Cairo, with a population of about 20 million people, is one of the largest cities in the world; compared to New York and London that each have a population of about 8 million. Just southeast of Cairo there is a neighborhood known as al-Arafa — or City of the Dead — where an estimated 500,000 residents live in an ancient necropolis.

The City of the Dead was a founded in 642 AD as an Arabic cemetery during the Islamic conquest of Egypt. Some families have lived here for hundreds of years after they were displaced by rural and urban migration, a shortage of affordable housing, and natural disasters. They are considered outcasts by the middle and upper classes of Egyptian society.

Cairo's City of the DeadCairo’s City of the Dead (photograph by Dennis Jarvis)

The City of the Dead consists of a grid of mausoleum structures that stretches for four miles. This community has limited electricity and running water, and leadership in the form of a neighborhood headman. Egyptian tombs in this neighborhood look like small houses, many of which have a garden. Families have set up kitchens, living areas, and bathrooms in these tombs. Traditionally the dead bodies of men and women are placed on shelves in separate underground rooms that are covered with stone slabs.

Since the revolution in 2013 there has been a rise in crime because the area is used for drug deals and to store weapons.

Families live among the graves of Manila's North Cemetery in the Philippines
Families live among the graves of Manila’s North Cemetery in the Philippines (photograph by Hywell Martinez)

The Cemeterio del Norte, or the Manila North Cemetery in the Philippines, dates to the 19th century and is the country’s largest public graveyard that spans over 130 acres. Hundreds of families have made the Manila North Cemetery home for decades because of urban population pressures and an affordable housing shortage in Manila, which has a population of 13 million.

Since the graves at the Manila North Cemetery are reused, its 6,000 residents live and work among human remains that lay out in the open. They have converted mausoleums into family homes, cafes and shops are run out of crypts, and children play among tombs. Many tomb dwellers care for the dead and provide services to mourners and visitors during All Saints Day.

Unlike the City of Dead in Cairo, this cemetery community lacks running water, electricity, and sanitation. Despite political pressure and a growing crime problem, residents prefer life among the graves to the unknown problems outside the cemetery walls. 

To glimpse inside Manila’s city among the dead, here’s a short documentary from National Geographic, which includes one two-story home where the residents regularly exhume the dead, as well as plan to be buried in their own crypt house. 

For more fascinating stories of forensic anthropology visit Dolly Stolze’s Strange Remains, where a version of this article also appeared


Morbid Mondays highlight macabre stories from around the world and through time, indulging in our morbid curiosity for stories from history’s darkest corners. Read more Morbid Mondays>

References:

Indian cannibal sect eats human corpses, believing it give them supernatural powers. (2005 October 27). Retrieved on March 30, 2014 from: http://english.pravda.ru/news/world/27-10-2005/69336-0/

Bernardo, D.M., Candela, M. (2011 November 17). Gallery: Life among the dead — Manila’s cemetery residents. Retrieved on March 30, 2014 from: http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/gallery-life-among-dead-manilas-cemetery-residents-217066

Hodal, K. (2013 May 23). Philippines cemetery provides Manila’s poor a place to live among the dead. Retrieved on March 30, 2014 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/23/philippines-cemetery-urban-poor-home