Head Hunting & Hanging Coffins – Need I Say More?

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

Admittedly at this point in the trip I was exhausted. I hadn’t had a hot shower in weeks, I mean a real, hard pressure, hot water, entire body wet at one time, kind of shower. I had also decided a few days prior to go to Hong Kong and Macau to visit with Jean-Pol, Nienh, a girl from Iowa, living in Hong Kong who I had met in Kota Kinabalu and my friend Pauline from boarding school who I had not seen in 17 years. I was really looking forward to a big city, like minded people, friends, a hot shower and ethnic diversity like Toronto has, a city said to be the second most ethnically diverse in the world after New York City.

My guide Jess Tony and I were off to Sagada, a destination very popular with Canadians due to its reputation for adventure and perhaps because its topography is quite reminiscent of Canada. “Sagada is a municipality of 10,930 in the province of Mountain Province, Philippines. It is located 275 km north of Manila, and it is adjacent to Bontoc, the provincial capital. Popular activities include trekking, exploring both caves and waterfalls, spelunking, bonfires, picnics, rappelling, visiting historical sites, nature hikes, and participating in tribal celebrations.”

I had my things packed for our overnight visit and after my usual morning serenade of No Woman No Cry by the men hanging around the hotel we were off on JT’s motorbike. During my stay I had amassed some groupies, a town where Bob Marley and Rastafarianism seemed to have taken hold of many of the male youths. I guess my guide mentioned that I was half Jamaican and so I was very popular, by one cross-eyed man in particular who took to following me around, singing to me and who was more than happy to take this photo of JT and I. Yes, I know what your thinking, digital cameras do wonders for cross-eyed people. Lol.

Our two-hour ride through the mountains and the capital of the Mountain Province, Bontoc was picturesque, stunning and once past the rice terraces I felt like I was in northern Ontario amongst limestone cliffs and pine forests. We stopped once along the way, higher up in the mountains to put on a few layers and I was really thankful that it wasn’t raining. Below, a photo JT said I had to have of the rice terrace that is on the 1000 Filipino Peso bill.

Sagada was very interesting and its culture and history gave me plenty to write about. Death and the burial of the Igorot people involve a very sacred and spiritual process to the after world. The dead are celebrated on The Day of the Dead or All Saints Day on November 1st and one of the things they do is to call out the name of anyone who has died as an invitation to eat with the family. Also, each family butchers a chicken for the feast with the dead.

There are several burial options in this region and it is decided how before death by the individual. One can have a traditional ceremony and burial in one of the Christian mountain cemeteries or in a hanging pinewood coffin and placed/hung in a burial cave or hung on the sides of Echo Valley along a 3km stretch of cliff faces. The earliest hanging of coffins occurred some 400 years ago and the last coffin was hung in 2010. About 10% of the population still chooses the burial cave or the hanging coffin method.

First, the dead person is seated in a death chair and is placed in the main room of the house for 3-4 days. The family continues their daily routine, living, eating and sleeping with the dead person tied to the chair, might I also mention while it begins to decompose. As well, offerings are tied to the chair such as dead pigs and chickens; I’m sure the scent is just magical. The main reason the person is tied to a chair is because the person is curled up into the fetal position before being placed in the coffin and tying them to the chair best facilitates this. Also, it allows the family to visit with them.

The body and chair is carried by one of the family members during the procession to Lumiang Cave (Lumiang means “burial”). The leaking decomposing liquid from the body is received with thanks by the person carrying the body as it is viewed as a gift from the deceased, especially for example, if the person is wealthy. The person is then untied, wrapped in cloth, placed in the coffin and the coffins are placed near the entrance of the cave as sunlight is needed for the still living spirits. 

There are, however, three reasons a person cannot be buried in the Burial Caves. First, by request. If someone does not want to be buried there they will not be, even if a family member requests it after death. Second, due to an unfortunate past. The elders trace the history of the deceased’s life and consider whether he/she is worthy of such a burial. One example given to me was infidelity but not in all cases. Go figure. And finally, due to an unnatural cause such as a murder, dying during childbirth or a sickness. Unnatural deaths are deemed unclean and cannot be buried next to clean spirits. The last cave burial in Sagada occurred in 2005.

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada (seen in the photo above) are likely what Sagada is best known for. “Hanging coffins are an ancient funeral custom of some minority groups. Coffins of various shapes were mostly carved from one whole piece of wood and either lie on beams projecting outward from vertical faces such as mountains, are placed in caves in the face of cliffs, or sit on natural rock projections on mountain faces. It was said that the hanging coffins could prevent bodies from being taken by beasts and also bless the soul eternally.”

Today, when someone dies in Sagada all manual labourers are given the day off as they represent the earliest tradespeople whose jobs existed when the process of hanging coffins first begun. Many people show up for the hanging, a minimum of one to two people per family. First the coffin is hung using scaffolding and then the body is placed in it in the fetal position. It is deemed to be shameful if one does not show up for the burial and many villagers also stand in front of their homes during the procession.

Sagada has a deep-rooted history in Christianity. Before Christians came to Sagada via American missionaries in the early 1900s the area was quite savage where an “eye for an eye” was taken quite literally and headhunting was a way of life. Fighting villagers would go into other towns and take the heads of their enemies placing them on sticks and riding from town to town, instilling fear among the people. The villagers were ready to accept Christianity by the time the missionaries came and a compound was built (most missionaries were military chaplains), complete with a church, hospital and dormitory for orphans. The compound created a buffer zone between the aggressive villagers from the northwestern side of Bontoc and those from Sagada. The “savages” would stop from entering Sagada because they would see themselves as trespassing through something they did not understand and had begun to fear. It was at this time that headhunting disappeared into history in this area of the Philippines.

The original church on the compound was built in 1920 and was bombed by the Americans. It was rebuilt in 1940 and then the Japanese came and occupied it in 1942 after learning of so many Americans living in Sagada. The missionaries were sent to prison in Bontoc and the Japanese finally were removed at the end of the war in 1945. 

The original 14 markers on the compound, signifying Jesus’ walk to the cross, pointing the way to the Calvary (the site of Jesus’ crucifixion), still exists today. The first Christian cemetery was built on the compound and is also still used. When I was there you could still see the small fire pits at the end of each grave, which were burned on the Day of the Dead. Traditionally candles were used but when the missionaries came beeswax was unavailable and fires were lit, a tradition still existing today. Some graves are dug below ground as ours are but many are above ground, a cheaper way to bury their loved ones. 

Sagada is a beautiful town, one I highly recommend visiting and staying a night or two in. I was a little distracted and excited for my trip to Hong Kong and I was very tired because of my 32 km trek the two days before. In hindsight I wish I had more less distracted time but there was no way around my timetable and I was able to visit what I had come for. Unfortunately, the weather the morning we headed back to Banaue was terrible, so bad that I couldn’t risk walking down to see the Hanging Coffins up close since we were going to have to brave the torrential rains through the mountains on the back of a motorbike. I was finally one of the suckers I see on the highway on the back of a motorcycle during the rain. It wasn’t unbearable until an hour in when we came across a landslide and waited thirty minutes for it to be cleared and then got stuck in a mountain rainstorm where we couldn’t see and I feared for our lives as we passed area after area warning us of falling rocks and landslides. I was trying to get back to Banaue to catch the 7pm overnight bus to Manila so I could catch my early morning flight to Hong Kong. Mother Nature was not going to get in the way of that!

I am glad to say that I made it back in time for my bus ride but I did have to ditch my guide in the rainstorm at the top of the mountain and flag down a jeepney to Banaue. Funny enough, the little restaurant where we stopped also sold clothing, something I had noticed on the way to Sagada. As I purchased dry clothes on our return I realized just how entrepreneurial they really were.

Most travellers I talked to on my trip had never made it to the Luzon and Mountain provinces, even those who were planning on going to the Philippines; they either hadn’t heard of it or had no plans to visit. Most head to the south, to the beaches and turquoise waters of the Visayas. I completely understand doing so as I also went after my trip to Hong Kong, however, if you can do both definitely do. This area of the Philippines is much more rewarding and memorable. Scenery, memories and photos to last a lifetime.

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