Being fond of the strange and unusual, I headed to Sagada in Mountain Province in search of the legendary hanging coffins of the Igorrot tribe.
These are an indigenous people who were once headhunters so fierce that the Spanish and even the Japanese refused to mess with them.
Eventually, however, Uncle Sam dropped in and ‘civilised’ them with Christianity. Although they don’t cut heads off very much now, they do retain a few elements of their culture – such as the hanging coffins.
While most of their ancestors are stacked up in the Lumlang Burial Cave, a number of them are suspended from limestone cliffs via ropes and extremely strong wires.
To go and view the caves and the coffins you will need a local guide to take you down there. The rationale behind this is twofold: to give them a job and to stop people stealing ‘souvenirs’, which used to happen a lot. The local guides are from the Igorot tribe and, whilst not having perfect English, are happy to tell you about their culture.
When one of our group amusingly asked our guide if there was a pet cemetery, she replied that there wasn’t; they butcher their pets.
The reclining dead
When you get to the hanging coffins you are struck by a few things… Firstly by the chairs that are next to the coffins, and secondly that the coffins seem too small for humans.
The chair part is really interesting. The locals don’t think you die when you die, they think you die two days after you die. You should therefore sit your dead arse down on a chair for two days to welcome your guests, before you get put in your coffin and became officially dead.
And the reason for the small coffins? You should be placed in the foetal position, as that is how you entered the world.
We also learned another reason for the guides being there — if an idiot tourist messes with the coffin, then it sets things back to zero. It’s as if the funeral never happened.
So why hanging coffins?
To the ancient Igorrots it meant placing their relatives that bit closer to heaven and free from the base constraints of earth.
This obviously meant a lot to them, as back in the day it would involve preserving the bodies with smoke and then embarking on a mammoth five-day hike to the funeral site.
Can anyone get buried there?
Absolutely not! They don’t just let any sap get buried in the hanging coffins of Sagada, with the following rules being in place:
- Be an FBI – no, that doesn’t mean the UFO-bothering US federal agency, it means ‘Full-Blood Igorrot’. One hundred per cent native;
- Die of natural causes – essentially, this means die of old age;
- Be a grandparent.
How do I see the hanging coffins of Sagada?
Visiting involves a car or bus ride of at least seven hours. But it’s worth it as Sagada has much more to offer than just the hanging coffins.
Alternatively, you can join a tour.