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.
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© Kiki Deere