Where does the Filipino urban legend of elementary schools being former cemeteries come from?

If you went to grade school in the Philippines, chances are you’ve encountered the urban legend that your school—yes, your school—used to be a WWII hospital (it doesn’t matter if historically, there was nothing in the area during WWII), but before that, it used to be a church and a cemetery as well. The order doesn’t matter. The elements are always present. 

I put out a call on Twitter if anyone had any insight on why this was so and someone (I’ve forgotten who you are. Please say hello so I can credit you) volunteered RJ Relos, aka Ace, an AB Political Science student in Colegio de San Juan de Letrán who is also a history and sociology buff. Ace was kind enough to share his thoughts from a historical and sociological perspective. 

A tiny America

A probable reason why this urban legend exists is because for much of the country, urbanization didn’t start until the American occupation (1898-1946). When the Americans introduced their culture to Filipinos, this included building “industries, schools, hospitals, and government buildings… areas which were once open zones became these newly urbanized parts.”

By “open zones,” Ace meant uninhabited wild and also sometimes used areas like fields, forests, and cemeteries. “Since urban planners during this time period wanted to [build] utility buildings, government buildings, schools, hospitals and such in strategic locations that would benefit the people, cemeteries that previously [occupied] these planned areas mattered little then,” he says. “The plan during President Quezon’s term where they planned to move the capital [from Manila to Quezon City], and so this fits the thought of hospitals being placed into previously built cemeteries.”

Ace also notes that not all cemeteries were considered hallowed ground because those buried in them weren’t Christians. A famous example of this is the Chinese cemetery mentioned in Noli Me Tangere, where Padre Damaso wanted Crisostomo Ibarra’s father’s body buried. 

“Some areas, like ancestral lands, were forcefully urbanized, and so the bodies of those ancestors remained within those areas,” Ace said. 

“Moreover, some indigenous peoples or traditional families kept the bodies of their ancestors near their homes until, through time, they were forced to move by the rapid industrialization and urbanization happening around them.”

The horrors of War

The urban legend really starts after World War II, when the country is taken over by the Japanese. Stories of their cruelty survive to this day, and the country has yet to acknowledge and make amends for the many atrocities they enacted on many countries, including the Philippines, during the war. 

“[During] World War II, most of the buildings [and mansions] in the capital and in rural town areas became military [headquarters] and military hospitals alike…. It is best for the army to occupy large buildings for them to easily take hold of an area since [constructing] new buildings is a hassle and a waste of time and resources during a war,” Ace explains. “And so, hospitals became the military’s main hospital, with schools, government buildings and utility buildings being controlled for similar uses or as ammunition depots or even as the occupying forces’ headquarters.

“An example is De LaSalle University (DLSU).  During the war, the Americans and the Japanese occupied the buildings and the latter massacred people there.” One of the most well-known stories about this is how Japanese soldiers gunned down 41 civilian Filipinos who had sought refuge in the DLSU chapel. 

DLSU’s school paper The LaSallian published an article in 2017 where Fernando Vasquez-Prado, who survived the massacre, recounted the horrors of the event.

An urban planner’s nightmare

After the War, Manila was the second most damaged city after Warsaw, Poland. Almost everything was destroyed and the city had to be rebuilt practically from scratch, and when the rebuilding did happen, it was done without any concrete plans. 

“Everything was now left for rebuilding and constructing [however] you like,” Ace says. “I find this the reasonable answer for the period since if you look at Manila; it is an urban planner’s mess, [as if] everything was built not according to any plan. You would see business centers, government buildings, utility buildings, schools, hospitals, renovated cemeteries, subdivisions, and slum areas all just being built at will with no plan at all. As for rural towns, similarly, much of the buildings were destroyed or abandoned, which made it just a process for rebuilding whatever [by] whoever purchases the area, like the case with Manila.”

In short, he believes that the reason for the popularity of this urban legend comes from a lack of urban planning. 

“To summarize, much of our planning in the country is either forgotten or a mess. Cemeteries turned into hospitals, then schools later on because we went after development, then the war devastated our country, [so] that left us to rebuild [over] whatever was in place, forgetting the history that once surrounded the area,” he says.

“We could say many of our areas were unintentional cemeteries because of the war since soldiers would kill enemies in [an] area then either leave their bodies for the animals, or [the] townspeople would bury them in an unmarked grave [nearby].”

A modern oral tradition

The tale’s continuing popularity has both good and bad points. Ace explains that for one, it could encourage students to take an interest in history. “If the myth [was] told to them by friends or elders, they could be interested in learning about the history of their area. For example, even though I’m from Bulacan, I heard similar myths from my friends in Manila, so I tried learning about the histories of Manila, which opened me to… the hidden tunnels in Intramuros, underground bunkers around the country, and ghosts stories about famous sites like Balete Drive,” he says.

Another way a dark past, whether real or urban legend, can benefit an area is that people will tread carefully around it. “They would respect the areas that they found ghost stories of, especially if they have heard that it was once a cemetery.”

Of course, this very past can also encourage disrespectful behavior, particularly from the curious or daring. “These kinds of stories would drive adventure-minded students to disrespect the rules of their teachers and go on their own to places prohibited.”

The urban legend has persisted over so many decades that nobody knows how it started, or why it is so widespread. Surely, not every elementary school (and oly elementary schools) in the Philippines was once a cemetery that became a church that became a hospital before it became a place of learning. 

“It’s our Filipino culture of telling the stories of our past to the next generation,” Ace says. “The tradition would live on, the stories will never be forgotten, and the myths and urban legends would always scare us and [leave us in] wonder since relieving history is a part of our culture.”


Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.