The Photo Tour group only has a full day to go around Sagada. While I think that’s a short time to really appreciate the place, it is still possible to see some key sites in Sagada. If you were to ask me which places to see when in Sagada for a day, the Sagada Hanging Coffins and the Burial Caves would be on top since that is the heart of the culture of Sagada. While this funeral rite is not unique in the Philippines as there are other indigenous people from China and Indonesia who also hang their coffins by the cliffs, Sagada is the only place where you one could see these Hanging Coffins in the Philippines.
The group went back for that much needed breakfast at Rock Inn after witnessing the Sunrise at Kiltepan Viewpoint. By mid-morning we took a short drive to town where our Sagada Guide, Gareth was waiting. Going to the Hanging Coffins is really easy but if you’re a first timer here, getting a guide to show you around would be wise to avoid unnecessary accidents. Gareth showed me a sign near a rock face in Echo Valley where an Italian photographer slipped to his death while trying to get a good angle. He was DOA at the hospital. I myself once fell on a cliff at Echo Valley, good thing my bag cushioned my fall and it wasn’t that high and walked it off with only a few scratches.
There are interesting stops before reaching the site of the Hanging Coffins, there’s the charming, St Mary’s Episcopal Church with beautiful stained glass window and has dramatic lighting in the interiors at certain times of the day. It also shows the dominance of Protestant religion in Sagada since they were the first missionaries who came here. The Kankana-ey welcomed this religion. Like the Chinese-Christian who has Buddha and Christ side by side on their altar, a Kankana-ey have both a Christian name and ancestral name.
We managed a short hike up the Calvary Hill and passed through the Sagada Cemetery where some of the converted Christians are already buried six-feet under. From behind the Cemetery is the narrow trail leading to Echo Valley. It was a different location from what I knew, Gareth told me this one is safer and what they used now to avoid what happened to that Italian Guy. From there, the hanging coffins can be seen already but of course, we’re going for a closer look.
It’s still a bit of a hike towards the other cliff-side so I could imagine how the people here manage to get these coffins up those rocks. While I know of the initial rituals they do, Gareth cleared me up on some details. During funeral, which happens at the break of dawn, the body and coffins are transported separately. The coffin would reach the cliff area first but the body is transported by passing it from a line of people going to the cliffs. Kankana-ey doesn’t embalm their dead. Elders would usually encourage people to participate in the funeral because having fluids like blood spilling over their clothes while passing the dead body would bring good fortune or additional skills to the person.
The process of putting the graves up by the cliffs is fairly simple. They make scaffolds first, drill holes on the rock face then lift up the coffins and place it there comfortably. Some noticed that the coffins are fairly small, that is because body is placed in the fetal position. They believe that people should pass through this world the same way they got in. Some graves have chairs, these are the “Death Chairs” where the dead was left sitting for a while before the funeral. People would not use them so they hang them along with the coffins. As to why they are placed high on the cliffs? One reason is to avoid animal scavengers desecrating the body or thieves stealing their belongings. The other reason is that they believe that the spirits would rise up easily from there than being buried six feet underground.
Later we also visited the Burial Caves of Lumiang. Aside from the hanging coffins, caves would also be a good option as it shelters the coffins from the elements, but unfortunately, not from thieves. I noticed that the stacks are neatly arranged this time and there are signs warning people from stealing bones here as souvenirs, which I think is a bit morbid. There are a few ones on the ground showing off the finely carved geckos on their lids which brings good luck. Some people would even steal those lids.
The Hanging Coffins and the Burial Caves of Lumiang depicts the richness of the culture of the People of Sagada. They still practice these rituals for the dead at this time but of course, the person has to tell their families where they would want to be placed. Whether they want to be placed by the cliffs or at the mouth of the cave, it doesn’t really matter as there is no real estate managers here to monitor the placements of their dead.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.