MANILA - Every year, come November 1 and 2, cemeteries all over the country come to life when the living visit their dead in what has come to be known traditionally for Filipinos as All Saints' and All Souls' Day.
Though the Catholic Church appealed for a solemn and prayerful observation of the "day of the dead" and urged against turning gravesites into picnic spots, it has also meant brisk business for food and flower vendors as they catered to the thousands who pay their respects to their loved ones.
Police set up frisking booths at cemetery gates to confiscate alcoholic beverages, playing cards, portable karaoke machines and weapons as huge crowds, including children and the elderly, endured slow-moving queues.
But more than tradition and business, the occasion has also become a family affair. Tents are put up for picnics, games, sing-along or simply, story-telling about a dearly departed.
"It is very important for Filipinos to pay respects to their dead. This is also a chance for a family reunion," 21-year-old government worker Mary Joy Pasigan told Agence France-Presse at a cemetery north of the capital Manila.
Pasigan carried her five-year-old niece past cramped corridors of tombs to offer sunflowers and orchids to her dead grandparents.
Conchita Pura, 60, brought sandwiches for her two-hour vigil at the tombs of her aunt and uncle.
"We come here to light candles and offer prayers so that their sins may be forgiven," she told AFP.
"Getting here is painful, but I must endure it to observe tradition," she said.
Fans pay tribute to showbiz idols
It is also an opportunity for showbiz fans to be with their idols.
At the Loyola Memorial Parks in Marikina, the graves of actress Nida Blanca and rapper-actor Francis Magalona are well visited.
Among those who never fail to visit Nida Blanca is Mariane Sta. Iglesia.
Since the demise of Nida Blanca, Mariane Sta. Iglesia, a caretaker of Blanca's property in Antipolo, said she and her family visits the actress' tomb every year.
"I miss her. I super miss her," said Sta. Iglesia, who worked for Blanca for 39 years.
Asked what she misses most about the actress, she said Blanca was "thoughtful and generous" and would always treat her house maid and caretakers as family.
On November 2001, Blanca was found murdered and stabbed inside a car in her residence in Greenhills, San Juan.
Sta. Iglesia, who visited the actress with her daughter and grandchildren, also met with Blanca's former housemaids and remembered their memories of the actress.
'Bring back the holy'
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said praying for the dead was a "duty" as it appealed to Catholics to "bring back the holy".
Instead of adopting Western Halloween celebrations and dressing up as vampires and monsters, Catholics should consider posing as saints, the CBCP said in a statement.
But at the Manila North Cemetery, the mood was more festive than solemn as popular fast food chains set up carts selling roasted pig, dim sum, noodles, fried chicken, and steamed pork buns.
The annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries also triggers a mass exodus from Manila, when tens of thousands travel to interior provinces where their relatives are buried.
Police have been placed on the highest alert since Thursday to secure cemeteries and transport terminals.
President Benigno Aquino III inspected Manila's sea, air, and bus terminals on Friday and ordered authorities to remain vigilant, his spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, told state-run radio DZRB
"(Aquino) will spend the weekend monitoring their updates to ensure the safety of commuters who will visit the graves of their loved ones in the provinces," Valte said.
But while most Filipinos commemorate the Feast of the Dead, it is an ordinary day for Lilia Diaz and her family who, along with a number of families, have been living at the Bagbag Cemetery in Quezon City for nearly two decades.
Asked why she and her kin have chosen to live here, Diaz said it is inside the cemetery where he finds peace and quiet.
She said it was more "peaceful" inside the cemetery than outside.
According to her, he used to live in Mandaluyong but decided to build their family inside the cemetery since her husband already resides there.
She said they started to live there in 1996 and made a living by being a caretaker of the tombs.
But she admitted that her life was already inside the cemetery- the place they call home.