Sagada and the Hanging Coffins

Hello from Sagada! The Wifi Gods have favored me and I finally have decent internet to write a post! The Philippines and I have had a love – hate relationship, but at the moment as I sit on the patio watching the rain drizzle after a long day of hiking and spelunking in through forests and caves, it’s more of a love love relationship!

Banaue and the rice terraces were amazing, and I’ll have to post some pictures and info soon, but my last two days of Sagada are fresh in the memory bank, so I thought I’d share!

The hanging coffins in Sagada are said to be a tradition that is over 2000 years old, although the oldest coffins that are visible to tourists are only from the 1800’s upward. The coffins are of the Igorot burial traditions of the local people, in which they believe that suspending the coffins from the cliffs allows the dead to ascend to heaven. The story goes that the coffins are build and carved by the dead before their death, if possible, and that many who die for reasons other than old age are not allowed to be buried in the same place with those who died from peaceful ways.

According to our guide on the Echo Valley Trail today, when the deceased died, they were sat in a chair for the first 24 hours of death before being placed in the coffin in the fetal position. The belief being that you came into this world in the fetal position, and so you exit this world in the same way. The chair in which the deceased was rested in for the first 24 hours is hung alongside the coffin so that the deceased ancestor is able to sit in it after death.

Once placed in the coffin, a group of men would then carry the deceased to the location in which he had been requested to be hung after death, the coffin then never touched the ground and a ladder was build in which the men could slowly lift, build, and place the coffin in its resting place. Only men were allowed to carry the coffin because they believed that if any fluids from the dead were to fall upon those carrying the coffin that they received great luck for the rest of their days. Apparently women didn’t deserve this luck 🙂

Similarly… on another outing the afternoon before, we were shown where the women who died during child birth or were widowed or barren were laid to rest in coffins; they were not allowed to be hung in the same vicinity as other coffins because they were believed to have been cursed.

The town has had a cemetery with tombstones and Christian burials since the U.S. occupied the Philippines in 1898, and to this day most of the Igorots – Cordillerans, and people of Sagada and the Luzon Mountains have both Christian Names as well as Traditional Names and keep their heritage while still reformed to Western Religious beliefs. Their practices show an amazing connection between both their traditional culture and new beliefs, in which to this day a member of the community may request to be buried in a hanging cemetery rather than in a grave plot. We were told that the family is supposed to honor the requests of the deceased, but that this isn’t always the case. To be hung in a coffin, 100% of the family must agree to have this ceremony, the last hanging coffin was buried in 2010. In the cemetery we passed through on the way to the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins we were also shown a tomb with a window, as the deceased had requested to be buried in a glass coffin so that he could see the world after death… the family however had decided this was impractical, thus only partially honoring his request with a small glass window. Also interestingly, all the tombs face to the west on the mountain so that when they rise from their graves they are facing the morning sun.

The coffins in Echo Valley are only from 1940 onward, while the coffins you are able to see in the Lumiang Burial Cave are over two hundred years old; placed in the cafe to protect them from weather and animals, they higher in the cave you were placed the more respected you were said to have been, and the light peaking through the entrance of the cave protected the deceased from bad spirits. A few of the coffins visible in Lumiang Burial Cave still have the carved tops displaying the Gecko which is a symbol of a long life. The coffins were built using wooden nails to secure the lids, and unfortunately due to vandalism, few of the intricately carved coffins remain today; our guide having told us that they were stolen and sold at antique stores.

I am so glad that I detoured from Banaue at the suggestion of a few travelmates I came across in the Philippines and made time for a quick trip to Sagada!

The second outing of the day was the Cave Connection Tour which was so crazy and SO MUCH FUN! We = Joost (Yoast) the Netherlander I met on the bus from Manila to Banaue … FYI, but more about some other time… but he has been my travelmate for all of Banaue and Sagada! The Cave Connection Tour takes you from the Lumiang Burial Cave really far down into the cave and then through an underwater river and out through the Sumaging Big Cave. The spelunking was so not like anything that would be legal, safe, or allowed in the U.S. thus (obviously) making it way more fun… if not a wee bit more dangerous. The guide had a oil lantern, wearing flip flops, we were told to wear flip flops or water shoes as well, and that we’d be going through water up to waist deep. The descent was slippery and wet with the occasional rope when things were extremely dangerous! This tour required all of my focus on not freaking out or being claustrophobic as we went through some really tight openings and narrow passages. THANK GOD I thought to bring my head lamp with me as there were more then a handful of times when Joseph (guides) lantern light wasn’t visible in the small spaces. (on a side note, always bring a head lamp when backpacking – travelling!!! It has saved my life or at least my sanity on so many occasions: power outages, delayed hiking returns, cave spelunking, early morning packing in a hostel, etc.)

Once we’d made our way deep into the cave, it was pitch black with the only sounds being dripping water and bats, eek! The rocks were slimy and often slippery with everyone having several close calls with falling, and lots of sliding down rock formations and getting muddy. Once we reached the river, it was not waist deep, we were up to our chests in water, and all I could do was try not to think about The Descent which I’d just watched with my Step Dad a few months back. The cave was cold enough that our breath could be seen which added to the eeriness of three people in a cave.

We made the mistake of asking Joseph if he’d ever broken the lantern and what happens… he told us that he did, and that they had to leave the tourists in the dark so that they were safe and he would climb back out to get another lantern and then go back and rescue them. He also told us about an earthquake not too long ago that trapped a few people… and then once back we made the mistake of searching the internet for “injuries in Sagada Caves” which yielded far too many articles about deaths and injuries with the last one being only a month ago. #thingsidototerrifymyfamily

Near the end after we’d made the connection to the second cave we were able to see some gorgeous rock formations as the cave opened up into a huge cavern! We had to take off our shoes and go barefoot into another portion of the cave (only in Asia would this be considered normal, haha) and scale down a few formations by rope to see the gem of the caving experience, the “Curtains”.

After climbing up a ladder made out of tires and rope, we were (somehow) unscathed and at the entrance of the Sumaging Cave. SO… all in all an eventful few days in Sagada, but incredibly fun and something new to have tried! I’m not so sure that I will be volunteering to pay money to go into a cave again anytime soon, but the entire cave excursion only cost 400 pesos each $8 each, had me running around barefoot (at times) in a cave, and testing my limits for new adventures in tight dark spaces.

The rain has been a bit intense in Banaue and Sagada as we they are entering the rainy season, there’s been flash floods and downpours every afternoon, but the mornings have been gorgeous and the weather has been cool-ish, but all in all I have loved every second of my time spent in Sagada and Banaue!

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