In Sagada, in the Mountain Province of Luzon island in the Philippines, sits a climber’s paradise. Home to waterfalls, hiking trails and stunning scenery, tourists flock to the municipality to enjoy its natural wonders. However, it is also home to one of the most striking burial spaces and methods in the whole country.
Before even considering subterranean burials, the practise of Hanging Coffins is arguably the most famous funerary ritual of the Kankanaey people of Sagada.
Coffins, containing only the remains of the great and good, are lashed and nailed to cliff faces and overhangs in a tradition that could date back over two millennia. Although rarely practised today, due to an increase in Christian belief and western cemetery burial practises, the hanging coffins remains as a revenant of Sagada’s rich cultural past.
It was believed that in ‘burying’ the dead in high places, this literal elevation would bring them closer to the spirit realm, and the spirits of their ancestors. Yet there are several other contributing factors for the tradition’s proliferation.
An interview with Sagada elder and member of the Igorot tribe, Soledad Belingom explains that:
“The elderly feared being buried in the ground. When they died, they did not want to be buried because they knew water would eventually seep into the soil and they would quickly rot. They wanted a place where their corpse would be safe.”
Similarly, the safety of the body from predators was a considerable concern. One such fear was that wild animals and dogs would disinter and eat the corpse, and during the days of tribal warfare and headhunting, “savages from different parts of Kalinga and eastern Bontoc province – our enemies – would hunt for our heads, and take them home as a trophy.” In keeping the bodies high, their ancestor’s bodies were safe from being defiled.
In the rows of hanging coffins, the older examples are noticeably smaller than their more recent counterparts. This is because the bodies inside are not laid out; it was believed that one should exit the world as one entered it, in the foetal position.
The coffins themselves were carved by their future occupants while they were still living, constructed from a section of tree trunk or simpler wooden planks joined together. The lid is a basic affair, fixed with a single latch, however many of the coffins themselves are richly decorated with many different designs including lizards, which were representational of fertility and longevity.
The height of the hanging coffin is also indicative of the status of the individual; the higher the coffin, the more important the deceased. Each hanging burial was of a male community leader or distinguished individual from the ‘amam-a’ (a council of elders) in the ‘dap-ay’ (the civic centre of the settlement), who was regarded to have been respected, wise and led traditional rituals. There is only one record of a woman being given the same celebrated hanging coffin burial.
The more common traditional burial method, and most famous burial site, within Lumiang is that of a cave burial. Here, the practise of ‘Kankanaey’ dictates that coffins are interred into caves – either by placing the coffins into natural crevices or tightly stacking them inside limestone caves. As with hanging coffins, the position of the cave coffins not only correlates with the societal importance of the individual inside, but also their cause of death. Similarly, prior to interment, all such traditional burials as this undergo a variety of rituals, known as ‘sangadil’
The coffins are not scattered throughout a cave system, but focused at the entrance, so that the incoming light can protect the deceased from any roaming bad spirits. The Lumiang cave has around 100 coffins visible, stacked 9 bodies high , with some having been there for approximately 500 years. The immediate impact of the coffin wall is undeniable, and is arguably the main reason for its status as a site of tourist interest. However, the cave is also of interest to climbers, spelunkers and hikers, where a two-to-four hour trek leads through the Lumiang and Sumaguing caves, requiring rock climbing, the navigation of narrow openings and underground pools. Personally, the experience sounds like nightmare fuel.
Whether buried on cliffs or caves, these traditional burials were said to ensure that the spirits of the deceased (anito) would be freed from their earthly vessels, and remain in their communities, protecting the living.
As previously mentioned, many of these traditional burial rituals are fading fast, not least due to Christian beliefs, but because of the immense cost involved. For the appropriate cave burial of an elder, a huge amount of animals – namely pigs, chickens and carabaos (a type of water buffalo) – have to be sacrificed during the funeral, in order to please the Gods and adequately honour the deceased.
The tradition is kept alive today by the Appli people, a subdivision of the Igorots, who occasionally bury elders in the traditional manner, but for how much longer, no one can be sure. For all of the moral and ethical questions associated with visiting traditional burial sites and places of religious importance, we can remain thankful that in their uniqueness, the caves and hanging burials of the Philippines will be preserved for many years to come.
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