The hanging coffins of Sagada are in the north part of the country in the Mountain Province. It’s a unique spot to discover one disappearing tradition in the Philippines. Members of the Igorot tribe bury their dead in a coffin, nailed to the sides of cliff faces high above the ground. Igorots live in the mountains of North Philipines. I had a chance to meet them also near Banaue Terraces. The tradition can probably be traced back more than two millennia.
Hanging coffins of Sagada are small as the corpse is buried in the foetal position. Igorots believe that a person should depart the same way as entered the world. I was so fascinated about this unique tradition of the Philippines, so decided to dig in more information.
Why the coffins in Sagada are hanging?
One of the most common beliefs behind hanging coffins of Sagada is that moving the bodies of the dead higher up brings them closer to their ancestral spirits. Moreover, people were afraid to be burried in the ground as the dogs would destroy the body and the wet soil would make it quickly decompose. They wanted a place where their corpse would be safe.
Another reason for hanging coffins of Sagada high up was risk of head hunters. Years ago during the headhunting days, enemies from a different province would hunt for their heads, and take them home as a trophy.
How did the burying tradition look like?
The elderly carve their own coffins before they die. If they are too weak, they ask some family members to make the coffin. To place the coffin on the cliff, there is a wooden construction where people can climb up and nail it. You will notice that some of the coffins have a chair next to it. It’s because after death the deceased was placed on a wooden chair, tied up and covered with a blanket. This was time for the relatives to come and pay their respect. They smoked cadaver to prevent fast decomposition and to conceal its rotting smell.
The vigil for the dead is held for a number of days, after which people carry the corpse to the coffin. Mourners believe carrying the dead will bring good luck and success as well as transfer the skills to them. The bones are cracked to fit the corpse into the small coffin, which is then sealed with vines.
In the later years, people started to put the coffins in between rocks and secure with nails. We were able to see two of those places during the tour in the Echo Valley.
Sagada’s hanging coffins today
The interesting part is that the tradition of hanging coffins in Sagada is still alife, but not on the same scale as before. The last funeral like that was in 2010, and the person was Christian. It’s fascinating how the ancient tradition blands with Christianity brought by the colonizers from Spain.
Nowadays, fewer elders want to be buried in a traditional way. As they are Christian, they want to be able to visit their relatives tombs in the All Saints Day. With Sagada’s hanging coffins is quite difficult to climb up and put the candle. Therefore, the tradition is disappearing.
How to get to the hanging coffins of Sagada?
Sagada is a little village and very touristic place as it’s near the ancient terraces in Banaue. To see the hanging coffins of Sagada, you need to come to the Echo Valley. From tourist information turn right to get to the church. The entrance to the Echo Valley is just behind it. You will have to pay for the guide, as the tourism municipality requires. The guide costs 500 pesos so you better come with a group or join one to share the costs.
Don’t miss seeing the hanging coffins on the way to Sumaguing Cave, which you can spot from the road. The original coffins are on the way to Sumaguing Cave, visible on the left side, on the rocks. Those are the first hanging coffins of Sagada and you can even see the joint hanging down from one of them. The coffins are on the other side of the valley, so you need a good camera zoom or binocular.
Third place where you can spot the coffins, is when going to Lumiang cave which is connected with Sumaguing cave. As Sagada hanging coffins are spread in the whole valley, you will have a chance to see more of them when getting to the cave.
Travelers mostly head to the touristic islands in Philippines such as Bohol, Siquihor or Palawan. However, I think it’s worth going to the north as well and see the greenery of the Mountain Province. I love to explore unique traditions like the hanging coffins in Sagada. It reminded me of mysterious jars in Phonsavan in Laos, where one of the theories says that people used to bury dead in the huge stone-made jars. The world is full of fascinating burying traditions and unique cemeteries. Have you discovered other places like that?