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April 16, 2021

Hanging Coffins of Sagada: The Filipino Tribe That Hangs Its Dead From Cliffs

“It’s like returning back to where you came from, in the foetal position in the womb.”
Hanging coffins are one of the funerary practices among the Kankanaey people of Sagada, Mountain Province, in the island Luzon of the Philippines. They have not been studied by archaeologists, so the exact age of the coffins is unknown, though they are believed to be centuries old.

The coffins are placed underneath natural overhangs, either on natural rock shelves/crevices or on projecting beams slotted into holes dug into the cliff-side. It was believed that in ‘burying’ the dead in high places, this literal elevation would bring them closer to the spirit realm, and the spirits of their ancestors. There are fears of being buried in the ground. Water seeping into the soil causing them to rot. Savages hunting for heads to take home as trophies and wild animals. This way the corpse is safe.

The coffins are small because the bodies inside the coffins are in a fetal position. This is due to the belief that people should leave the world in the same position as they entered it, a tradition common throughout the various pre-colonial cultures of the Philippines. The elderly carve their own coffins out of hollowed logs. If they are too weak or ill, their families prepare their coffins instead. The dead are placed inside their coffins (sometimes breaking their bones in the process of fitting them in), and the coffins are brought to a cave for burial.

As the corpse is wrapped in rattan leaves before being placed in the coffin, men drive metal pegs into the cliff face to suspend the coffin in its final resting place. Before the casket is hauled up the bluff, mourners let fluids from the decomposing cadaver drip onto their bodies, believing that it will bring them luck.

In recent years, a trickle of interested travelers has started making the pilgrimage to Sagada to visit the hanging coffins. Ironically, this vertical cemetery has turned into something of a lucrative livelihood for the Igorot people, providing a much-needed economic boost to the whole village.


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