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5 November 2018

Burial practises of the mountain tribes

Hanging coffins of Sagada

Hanging coffins of Sagada

3 November 2018

Today we have been hearing more about the various icky death rites of the people of the Cordillera, so I thought I’d share.

As Keynod explained at length, when someone pops their clogs in the mountains they are sat up in a chair and placed in the main room of the house so that people can come and visit and chat with them. Pigs are regularly sacrificed and roasted, so everyone gets a good feed to make sure they remember granddad fondly. If you are smart you wrap cloth around the corpse’s mouth, otherwise the tongue emerges after a day or two and hangs ridiculously down to their chin. How long they stay sitting in the chair depends on the age and seniority of the dead person. Could be 2 or 3 days, could be up to 10. Yes, it’s around 30 degrees in the daytime. Try not to think about it too much. Enjoy your roast pig instead.

Caveholing in Sagada

Caveholing in Sagada

At this point the practises start to vary between tribes. Some of them build a fire underneath and smoke the body until it’s dry and mummified, others prefer to keep it wet. The body is then folded up into a proper foetal position (“return to the womb”), wrapped in cloth, and carried by the family to wherever the coffin is waiting. It’s apparently lucky if you get goo on you. Thanks, granddad.

In Sagada they hung the coffins of old people up on a cliff. Younger dead folk were stacked up in caves instead. There’s a special cave for unmarried women. In Maligcong they buried the dead right next to the house, perhaps in a family tomb that can be re-opened every generation to clear a bit of space (“shove over a bit, great-grandma”) and inter the new corpse. This is still done. I can’t remember what they do in Banaue.

The real view of the hanging coffins

The real view of the hanging coffins

We learned this while following the endless crowds around Echo Valley where the hanging coffins are. More exciting was our trip down into the Sumaguing caves at 7am; going so early we were only the second group in there, and it was a fun hour clambering around in the wet being shown rudely named cave formations by Edmund. Climbing back out, we passed a half-dozen groups heading down and more white vans were arriving as we left.

The white vans are tiny shiny minibuses carrying ten cheerful tourists up from Manila for a weekend in the mountains. They leave at some godforsaken hour for the nine hour drive to Sagada, stop overnight, then visit Banaue on the way back to Manila. They swarm like locusts at the main sights. Luckily anything requiring more than a 5 minute walk to snag some sweet selfies is of zero interest to them, so Maligcong and Banga-an we had entirely to ourselves. We actually only saw perhaps 3 other pairs of western tourists this whole trip.

Now we are in Vigan. I have to record that the 6 hour drive across the mountains to the coast was epically beautiful. Luzon is a big island and these are big mountains. The last stage, a river valley wending between high jungle-clad cliffs, was probably the most atmospheric and the villages along the way were much prettier than most that we’ve seen.

Coffin cave

Coffin cave


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