The Secrets of Binondo's Lost Tombs
As consecrated ground, it was not unusual for old churches to have burial spot or crypts within its premises. While some historic churches like San Agustin or Nagcarlan have preserved their crypts, there are also those that have been neglected by time. Take for example Binondo Church, built in the 16th century and a symbol of the curious intersection of Chinese culture and Catholic faith. It was where the first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz (who was Filipino-Chinese), served as a sacristan during his boyhood.
Enter the church and you could see a remarkable piedra china tablet laid down by the main entrance. Piedra china—literally "Chinese stone"—is named so, some say, because the worn granite was used for Chinese tombstones. Indeed, the five-foot long tablet in the church is etched with the Spanish words: AQUI YAZE JVAN DIONICIO COQVA FALLEC EN 27 F. DE 1722 AÑ. Visitors may mistake it for a welcome message, but it translates to: “Here lies Juan Dionicio Coqua who died on February 27, Year 1722.” It’s a grave marker.
History tells us that wealthy Chinese converts to Catholicism have chosen to be buried in Binondo Church, including Juan Dionicio. Tombstones with Chinese characters were recorded to have been in the church as early as the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some sources say that the Dominican friars wanted to underplay the Chinese quality of the tombstones. This is probably one of the reasons why there are evident erasure marks on the tombstones. Was something originally there etched out or did it just fade away in time?
Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks theorizes that it must have been etched out. “My theory is that it was chiseled off when the guy converted because if you look closely, the Latin characters are still there,” he says. “It was obvious that they were Chinese characters, because it was written downwards."
Based on his studies of Chinese graveyards and tombstones from the time, the inscription must have been Juan Dionicio’s name written in Chinese characters, along with his place of origin.
The size of the tombstone must have indicated that he was a prominent “Chino Christiano” in society back then, Man Dy says. Unfortunately, not many things are known about him except that his family must have been influential enough that his tombstone was spared during Binondo Church’s earlier renovations.
Some sources also have it that piedra china tombstones were actually broken up to serve as building material to the renovated church. Man Dy said that there are actually pieces of four or five more of these tombstones that can be found inside the church.
These Chinese tombstones can also be seen in the nearby Santa Cruz Church and what’s remarkable about these ones is that the Chinese characters have remained intact. For a deeper understanding of Chinese burial customs and grave architecture, Man Dy suggests going to the Chinese Cemetery instead. “There are a lot of community heritage there that even some Tsinoys don’t know about,” he says.