I remember hearing somewhere that Archeologists hit the jackpot when they are able to study the burial practices of a culture. They say that you can learn more about a people – their beliefs, fears, values, and customs – from the rituals they practice around death, than from any other practice.
When I think of the Philippines, I don’t think of hanging coffins. When I started researching this trip, when I thought of the Philippines I thought of iconic white sand beaches, the UNESCO rice terraces and maybe perhaps the chocolate hills. I certainly didn’t think of hill tribes, cool mountain climates, and hanging coffins. So when I stumbled across a short entry about the town of Sagada and the nearby hanging coffins I was intrigued.
We visited Sagada after our short stay in Batad. After paying roughly $2 each for our spot in a mini van, we embarked on the several hour drive that winded us along narrow mountain roads. Passing by our windows were vistas of rice terraces, water buffalo and children playing. It was an idyllic picture of Asia which will stay with me forever.
We got dropped off in the middle of town and managed to somehow walk the few kilometers to our guest house despite no working mobiles, maps, or guidance of any kind. (Pretty much how all travel was 10 years ago, but which seems a million years ago in our technology dependent culture of today.) We had one day in Sagada and our mission was to visit the hanging coffins.
The practice of placing the dead in coffins nailed or suspended to the sides of cliffs is a tradition of the Igorot tribe which can be traced back around two millennia. There are several theories as to why the Igorot people went to so much trouble to hang the dead from sheer rock cliffs, and one is that by placing them on the mountains that the spirits are closer to the heavens. Another, less spiritual theory, was that it was to keep the body from decaying or being eaten by animals. No matter what the reason, this unique practice is still alive and well, with elders still being buried in this way, although the practice isn’t nearly as prevalent as it once was.
Our guide Tony took us along the short hike to see the coffins. The walk started at the parking area in front of the town’s main church, went through an American style cemetery, through appropriately named Echo valley, and down to the viewing site of the coffins. The walk is rough and unpaved (and was quite muddy at the time of visit), but isn’t overly strenuous and can be done each way in about 15 minutes.
The first thing that struck me was how difficult it must have been to get the coffins placed on the mountain side in the way they were – especially when this was being practiced a couple hundred years ago. Tony told us that even now, with modern technology, that is still takes a huge number of volunteers from the village to get the body into the right spot and secured on the mountainside. He told us that Igorot’s living in other areas of the Philippines will all come home for the occasion and the family of the deceased must put on a large feast for the volunteers.
The second thing that struck me were the coffins themselves. They are constructed from hollowed up trees (mostly) although some more modern designs also feature. They were painted in bright colours, and often had the name of the deceased painted on the coffin as well. Some coffins even had little tin roofs to keep the water out. The coffins are all quite small as well. This is because the Igorot’s are usually buried in the fetal position – and traditionally, if the body was too large to fit in the tree trunk coffin in the fetal position, then the family would break a few of the bones to get them into place. Not surprisingly, bone breaking is not often practiced any more.
When we got down to the base of the mountain and the best spot for viewing one particular cluster of coffins we were met by a group of local travelers, all taking turns getting the ultimate group selfie with each of their phones. It struck me as a bit macabre to be smiling and taking selfies in front of a burial ground. But then when our guide grabbed our cameras and started taking group photos of us… well…. I guess I cant judge anymore can I?
Have you been to Sagada? Do you have any more interesting stories or facts to share? Please, let me know in the comments!