Hanging coffins in Sagada
Frequent monsoon flooding is likely the reason for the hanging coffins of Sagada.
For The Washington Post

In the Philippines, a Grave Road Trip

Sunday, October 30, 2005

"There lies my grandmother!" exclaimed my guide, a prickly-haired 19-year old named Birdy. Casting my gaze horizontally in search of a tombstone, I found his index finger directing my eyes heavenward. There, on a rock face high overhead, hung pine coffins seemingly suspended in midair.

Birdy indicated a new off-white casket beneath three others in its group."That's my grandmother. We hung her last year."

Many of the dead are still hanging around the highland community of Sagada, about 200 miles north of Manila on northern Luzon Island in the Philippines. Yet curious traditions of kin relationships transcending death aren't confined to the village: Permeating the sprawling island are funerary customs peculiar enough to make an aspiring anthropologist out of any wayward traveler. Visiting one macabre site after another recently, I found myself turned into a ghoul on a field trip.

I began in Sagada. The dead here remain conspicuously in sight, reclining in simple coffins attached to jagged cliffs. Past the neat white headstones of the Catholic cemetery, Echo Valley still reverberates with age-old burial customs, as home to the famed Hanging Coffins, most of which actually rest on iron bars hammered into the rock face. Although nowadays most locals receive customary Catholic burials, Birdy's octogenarian grandmother insisted on time-honored Sagadan last rites.

Accordingly, her relatives decked her out in lavishly woven traditional garments and tied her, seated, to a sangadil, or "death chair," made of pine boughs. They placed her facing her house's front door, the better for grandma to welcome well-wishers before her journey to the afterlife. Smoking the corpse with a wet fire to preserve it for the five-day burial feast, relatives and friends then proceeded to wine and dine the dearly departed by placing her favorite dishes at her feet and regaling her with stories and songs.

At the end of the five days, her kinfolk then took turns carrying her body by hand down to Echo Valley, where they hauled her, encased now in a coffin, to her final resting place. "Up there," Birdy suggests, "she's closer to heaven." More prosaically, Sagadans probably started hanging coffins to protect their inhabitants from frequent monsoon floods cascading down from the surrounding mountains.

In the Lumiang Burial Cave a mile or so down the road, hundreds of other coffins -- chunky hollowed-out tree trunks -- are piled against walls, their owners tied in a fetal position as if returned to the womb. Some coffin lids sport roughly hewn lizard motifs, and locals will tell you of a king-size cobra they recently found lurking among the caskets.

A few hours' drive away, on a gravelly asphalt ribbon of hair-raising bends flanked by yawning chasms, lies Banaue, home to some of the world's finest rice terraces (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The indigenous Ifugao -- proud headhunters in earlier times -- keep skeletons literally in the closet.

"Would you like to see the bones?" is a staple Ifugao query to foreign visitors. For 50 pesos (around $1), a middle-aged, prematurely wrinkled Ifugao woman admitted me into her wood-planked homestead, whereupon she fetched a bundle of woven fabrics. She unrolled it, revealing an intact, unassembled human skeleton. Generally, such family relics belong to a great-grandfather, a grandmother or another esteemed dearly departed. In this case they belonged to an aunt.

With her 6-year-old daughter nibbling cashews at my feet, the woman asked me if, for another 50 pesos, I wanted to have my picture taken with her aunt's skull. I timidly declined.

Far from just being income-producing tourist traps, the bones of old Ifugao men and women are preserved lovingly in the hope that dead relatives, if properly pampered, will render their living kin important otherworldly services. In case of sickness in the family, the Ifugao will painstakingly scrub a dead relative's bones and offer the semi-disembodied loved one yummy dishes at the dinner table.

But I was ready for the mummies. They were waiting at the end of a six-hour vertebrae-fusing ride in a battered jeepney (one of the country's trademark American-style military jeeps converted into gaudy passenger pickups). The small farming town of Kabayan, near the Philippine Shangri-La of Baguio some 150 miles north of Manila, once nurtured one of world's few known mummifying cultures.

Discovered by the outside world in the early 1900s, the mummies -- shriveled, desiccated corpses anywhere between 500 and 3,000-plus years old, with skin as brittle as ancient parchment -- continue to defy from-dust-to-dust oblivion. The local Ibaloi people, justifiably fearing unscrupulous grave robbers, jealously guard the locations of several burial caves: Once disturbed, vengeful mummies (erstwhile luminaries of the tribe) might visit untold havoc on their latter-day progeny.

Luckily, the small Kabayan Museum displays some of the better-preserved specimens, their features still distinguishable. At pride of place is Apo Annu, a 16th-century chieftain exquisitely tattooed with the protective marks of headhunter-warriors. In several adjacent showcase caves, mummies recline in pod-shaped wooden caskets, like hibernating proto-astronauts.

Back in Manila, too, I found some of the dead lovingly pampered. In the capital's Chinese cemetery, the richest residents on Millionaire's Row are enshrined in palatial mausoleums complete with air conditioners, kitchens, flush toilets, hot and cold water taps, and -- luxury of luxuries -- television sets in case the interred should wish to sneak a peek at the latest Jackie Chan flick.

Outside the cemetery gates, penniless mendicants from a neighboring slum begged for meager handouts. It's an uncomfortable feeling to discover that between the quick and the dead, the latter seem to have the better deal.

-- Tibor Krausz

For general information on travel to the Philippines: Philippines Department of Tourism,http://www.tourism.gov.ph.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company