The Northern Philippines is the home of a mountainous tribe called the Igorot. In a practice which goes back for millennia, the deceased are buried on the mountainside. Literally; their coffins are nailed on high cliff faces, purportedly to bring the dead closer to their ancestral spirits. Today, burials of this type are rare, and reserved for tribal elders with families, who have died from natural causes. Those who die in infancy or from disease are not permitted to be buried on the cliff for fear of bad luck for the community.
Historians of the tribe trace the reasoning to the cliff side burials to more than just spiritual reasons. The ancient members of the tribe had many fears about their afterlife, just as did tribes across the globe. They feared their corpses would be devoured by wild animals if buried in the earth. They feared their corpse would rot, if exposed to moisture from the soil. But worst of all, they were afraid rival tribes, especially those who practiced headhunting, would desecrate their grave and make their head a trophy. Their solution of hanging the coffins on the high rock alleviated all afterlife concerns.
After dying, the corpse is prepared for the traditional funeral, first by dressing it in the family colors. The body is seated in a “death chair” and lashed to it using vines or other vegetation and further wrapped with a blanket. The chair is positioned facing the doorway of the home so people passing can pay their respects. In order to keep the flesh from rotting and to minimize the obvious smell of decay, the corpse is smoked. There is no fixed amount of time for this ritual but it’s a minimum of five days, so the smoking is highly beneficial.
Once the visitation period is over, the family prepares the body for burial by forcing the now stiff corpse into the fetal position. They bend the knees up until they touch the mouth and then tie them in place. The reason for the positioning is the belief that they would leave the world the same way they entered. They wrap the body again with a blanket and secure it for the journey up the mountain.
While the viewing is going on, younger men from the village are already at work chipping holes into the rock face to support the coffin. The coffins used by the Igorot are smaller than traditional coffins and most often are carved by the deceased themselves. When it’s time, the family then carries the corpse up the mountain to finally place it in the already attached coffin. One of the most macabre things surrounding the procession up the mountain is considered good fortune. The family member that gets blood or bodily fluids on them while passing the corpse up the mountain is considered to be blessed with good fortune.
A handful of elders are among the last practitioners of this ancient ritual. Since the Philippines are mostly Christian now, most of the younger tribe members are buried in the traditional Christian methods. They bury their dead in a cemetery and visit them for numerous reasons. Tourists are welcome but you can’t climb the mountain and visit the hanging coffins; you can only observe them from below due to thefts of bones in the past.
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