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Mountain Province Philippines Travel

Mountain Province | Sagada Cemetery and Significance of Death in Igorot Life

Death and dying is an inevitable subject in conversations when All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day approaches. Like an evening conversation over a warm fire one cold and rainy night in Maligcong, from the talks of somewhat paranormal encounters in the rice fields we ended up talking about Igorot culture and the commonality of their beliefs within tribes in Cordilleras. It was interesting to talk to a native i-Maligcong and hear from them their traditions in wakes and still observed but slightly modified in the modern times for practicality. My thoughts immediately shifted to their neighboring town of Sagada only an hour away. The town has seen tremendous visits year long for its unique burial tradition of Hanging Coffins. Much so during All Saints day for its fiery spectacle during the Festival of Lights. But these popular display is just a small part of their traditions.

Sagada Cemetery in the afternoon light
Sagada Cemetery in the afternoon light

Death and dying is an inevitable subject in conversations when All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day approaches. Like an evening conversation over a warm fire one cold and rainy night in Maligcong, from the talks of somewhat paranormal encounters in the rice fields we ended up talking about Igorot culture and the commonality of their beliefs within tribes in Cordilleras. It was interesting to talk to a native i-Maligcong and hear from them their traditions in wakes and still observed but slightly modified in the modern times for practicality. My thoughts immediately shifted to their neighboring town of Sagada only an hour away. The town has seen tremendous visits year long for its unique burial tradition of Hanging Coffins. Much so during All Saints day for its fiery spectacle during the Festival of Lights. But these popular display is just a small part of their traditions.

The Sagada Hanging Coffins is just a small part of their death and post burial traditions
The Sagada Hanging Coffins is just a small part of their death and post burial traditions

Death is a part of Life

If there’s any place in the country that gives a lot of significance on death, it’s in the Cordillera highlands. In her book “Death and Beyond: Death and Burial Rituals and other Practices and Beliefs of the Igorots of Sagada, Mountain Province”, Sagada native and educator, Dinah Elma Piluden-Omengan, documented the complexities of Igorot rites of the small town Sagada in a rich 200-plus pages of her book. For the Sagada people there are respected rites depending of the kind of death – wether of a newborn, young adult, accident, murder, suicide and of old age.

For newborn deaths, burial immediately follows if the baby died in daylight. For night time deaths, relatives proceeds with the burial upon first light. Prayers for guidance in the afterlife and to leave the people left behind healthy would done by the elders. There’s a week of mourning for the parents before they return to work. Accidental deaths, murders and suicide is the painful kinds of deaths for the Igorots. The ritual of offering a dog which will seek revenge to those who have wronged them. For murders, the assistance of the sun, moon and the clouds to find the killer if have not yet been known.

Death by old age is celebrated. Igorots gives substance to family and it is important as much as possible that each member of the family is present during the wake of the departed. The community is even invited to the gathering. This I experienced when I was I visited Tulgao in Kalinga. We passed by a house where a wake was happening and we were invited to partake on a feat of rice and pork.

The Panag-apoy, a popular All Saint's Day spectacle in Sagada
The Panag-apoy, a popular All Saint’s Day spectacle in Sagada

Christianity and Modernity

With the arrival of the American Anglical Missionaries early 1900s, Sagada suddenly have another belief infused with their pagan and animist traditions. Ask a native Sagada their name, most likely they would give either their Christian name or their native name. The presence of the Christian cemetery on a solemn hill gives a choice to Sagada natives on how they would like to be buried. Like Maligcong tribe who now shorten some of their post-burial practices for practicality (since pigs are expensive, chickens would do on some rituals), some Igorot tribes also infuse Christian practices for mourning periods. Like Rebecca Angapilan, a Bontoc-Kankanay from Bauko who wrote that in between butchering pigs for offering, their family would pray the rosary now and offer mass during the 9-days of mourning. It’s nice to see people of Cordillera still holding on to their traditions as its what makes them unique. In fact I hope they embrace the tradition as its who they are. Yes the modernity calls for practicality but at leat document, observe and bring importance to this traditions by keeping them alive one way or the other. Death may be constant but cultural traditions and beliefs like this can easily fade.

The St Mary Church, the Anglicans were the first to introduce Christian influence in Sagada in the early 1900s
The St Mary Church, the Anglicans were the first to introduce Christian influence in Sagada in the early 1900s
Remembering the departed
Remembering the departed
Modernity infused with their traditional beliefs
Modernity infused with their traditional beliefs
Solemnity at night
Solemnity at night

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