Blindfolded bodies and hanging coffins – the unusual funerals of the Philippines
[H]ere in Blighty, we tend to stick to the same tried and tested funeral traditions.
Save for religious elements, funerals in Glasgow aren’t too different from those in Preston; funerals in Wells are largely the same as funerals in Norwich.
This is not the case in the Philippines.
The country is largely Catholic (recent estimates suggest around 80 per cent) with a smaller demographic of Filipino Muslims. But in the more remote areas, tribal traditions, passed down over centuries, dictate some seemingly unconventional funeral customs that are practiced to this day.
From under-floor burials to hanging coffins, cigarette-smoking corpses to in-tree interment, each rite has the same intent: to offer the dead safe passage to the next life.
Blindfolds and cigarettes
Benguet is a landlocked province in the southern tip of the island of Luzon.
When someone dies here, friends and relatives start to convene at the deceased person’s house.
The body is cleaned, and a few of the men are dispatched to collect bamboo, which they then fashion into a chair – and this is where the body is seated.
Once secured in place with more bamboo and strips of cloth, the body is blindfolded so that the deceased does not have to bear witness to the suffering in the world.
A fire is lit to fend off insects and act as a beacon should the deceased’s spirit wander and be unable to find its way home.
This period lasts for eight days and, as you might expect, the body begins to decay.
This holds no fear for the Benguet people – in fact, they make jokes about the smell, and happily offer alcoholic drinks to the body during the mourning feast.
The night before the funeral, elders give a chanted, oral biography of the deceased and as the body is buried, mourners hit bamboo sticks together in the belief it will help the departed find their way to heaven.
The Benguet’s near neighbours, the people of Tinguian, also seat their dead in a prominent position, with a couple of small discrepancies: the Tinguian dress their deceased in their finest clothes then place a cigarette – which is frequently lit – between their lips.
For the llongot people in the mountains the east of Luzon, being seated is integral to burial, rather than the wake.
Corpses are buried sitting up and women have their hands tied to their feet to prevent their ghosts from roaming.
Home is where the heart is
The Apayao – also referred to as the Isnegs or Isnags – inhabit the area around the north of Luzon.
They live mostly along rivers, in large airy homes that sit atop wooden posts, and when they lose relatives, the custom is to bury them under the kitchen area.
It is a unique practice thought to be a sign of love and affection for the deceased.
A natural approach
Not all Filipino tribes keep their dead at home. Further north, the Caviteño have adopted an approach that returns their loved ones to the earth.
As they near the end of life, people of the Cavite venture into the forest and select a favoured tree.
As they ail, their family builds them a small hut in which the dying person will reside for their final days.
They are not alone: relatives and friends work to hollow out the chosen tree trunk as this is where the newly deceased will be buried.
The Cavite people return the deceased to nature as nature provided for them in life: trees are a source of fruit and fire wood that sustain life, so life is given back to the tree.
Closer to heaven
The people in the Sagada region have an interment ritual that is unusual, even among the Filipino tribes.
For more than 2,000 years the people in this mountainous area have hung their coffins from cliffs – coffins that are carved out of hollow logs by the elderly person about to make imminent use of it.
The theory is that by hanging the coffins in this way, the deceased are closer to heaven.
If a person is too frail or ill, the family makes the coffin on their behalf, and after the death the coffin is taken to a cave or hung to reach aspects of the cliff face, placed close to their ancestors.
Some of the coffins are more than a century old, which makes decay inevitable; the coffins eventually fall but this is part of the fulfillment of the rite.
Tourists are advised not to walk under the coffins, and certainly not to disrespect them by touching, but they they hold a unique beauty and can be observed using binoculars from a safe distance.
It may be less intensive, but it is customary for Filipinos to adhere to superstitions, or pamahiin sa patay, most of which are rooted in long-held beliefs.
These must be observed during the wake in order to avoid further deaths and bad luck in the family – and as Filipino wakes can last anything from a few days to a few weeks, this is no easy feat.
The Cebuano people have a long list of superstitions around death. They do not sweep the floor, lest the soul of the deceased be banished from the household.
Mirrors are covered, as it is feared the dead will attempt to show themselves in the reflection.
Mourners should avoid crying onto the glass screen of the casket, in case it impedes the spirit from journeying into the afterlife.
And should you sneeze during the wake, make sure someone pinches you – sneezing invites death but a pinch is meant to ward it off.
In the event of an unjust killing, a chick is placed on top of the coffin to bring justice.
While some of these traditions may seem unusual compared with the practices we have developed in the west, family is central to life and death in the Philippines.
The elderly remain at home until the end of life, which means most die surrounded by those they love – something the UK would do well to replicate.
Funerals are a chance for families to reunite, to reconnect and reinforce familial bonds, and often wakes are extended to accommodate overseas relatives.
Togetherness, family, grief and the comfort of ritual: mountains and oceans may separate us, but maybe we aren’t so different after all.
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