Hanging coffins, Sagada, Philippines

The hanging coffins of Sagada, Philippines

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By Kiki Deere
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Members of the Igorot tribe of Mountain Province in northern Philippines have long practised the tradition of burying their dead in hanging coffins, nailed to the sides of cliff faces high above the ground. Comfortably predating the arrival of the Spanish, the procedure can probably be traced back more than two millennia. To this day, the age-old tradition continues to be performed, albeit on a much smaller scale than before. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere went to find out more.

Traditional burials in hanging coffins only take place every few years or so now, but Soledad Belingom, a retired septuagenarian schoolteacher of the Igorot tribe, has invited me to her modest house in Sagada to tell me more about her tribe’s unique burial practices.

One of the most common beliefs behind this practice is that moving the bodies of the dead higher up brings them closer to their ancestral spirits, but Soledad believes there are other contributing factors. “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.”

Soledad pauses, shifting in her armchair in search of a more comfortable position. She lets out a little cough before going on: “There are two fears of being buried. The first is that dogs will eat the corpse, so the coffins are placed high up on a cliff, out of their reach. Secondly, years ago, during the headhunting days, savages from different parts of Kalinga and eastern Bontoc province – our enemies – would hunt for our heads, and take them home as a trophy. That’s another reason why the dead were buried high up – so nobody could reach them.”

The coffins are either tied or nailed to the sides of cliffs, and most measure only about one metre in length, as the corpse is buried in the foetal position. The Igorots believe that a person should depart the same way he entered the world.

When someone dies, pigs and chickens are traditionally butchered for community celebrations. For elderly people, tradition dictates this should be three pigs and two chickens, but those who cannot afford to butcher so many animals may butcher two chickens and one pig. Soledad tells me the number must always be three or five.

The deceased is then placed on a wooden sangadil, or death chair, and the corpse is tied with rattan and vines, and then covered with a blanket. It is thereafter positioned facing the main door of the house for relatives to pay their respects. The cadaver is smoked to prevent fast decomposition and as a means to conceal its rotting smell. The vigil for the dead is held for a number of days, after which the corpse is removed from the death chair to be carried to the coffin. Before being taken for burial, it is secured in the foetal position, with the legs pushed up towards the chin. It is then wrapped again in a blanket and tied with rattan leaves while a small group of men chip holes into the side of the cliff to hammer in the support for the coffin.

“The corpse is wrapped like a basketball”, says Soledad, “on the way there, mourners do their best to grab it and carry it because they believe it is good luck to be smeared with the dead’s blood.” The fluids from the corpse are thought to bring success and to pass on the skills of the deceased to those who come into contact with them during the funeral procession.

When the procession reaches the burial site, young men climb up the side of the cliff and place the corpse inside a hollowed out lumber coffin. The bones are cracked to fit the corpse into the small space, which is then sealed with vines.

The newest coffins measure to about two metres, Soledad explains: “These days, coffins are long because the relatives of the deceased are afraid to break the bones of their loved ones. Very few choose to follow that tradition now.”

Today, Sagada’s elders are among the last practitioners of these ancient rituals. Younger generations have adopted modern ways of life and are influenced by the country’s profound Christian beliefs. “Children want to remember their grandparents but they prefer to bury them in the cemetery and visit their tombs on All Saints Day. You can’t climb and visit the hanging coffins. It’s a tradition that is slowly coming to an end. It’s dying out.”

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, buy the Rough Guide to the Philippines or to explore this area of the world, look out for the upcoming edition Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget in August 2014. 
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.