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The Filipino tribe that hangs its dead from cliffs
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Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot
In the Philippines, the Igorot people practice an ancient burial ritual where the elderly carve their own coffins and the dead are hung off the side of a cliff.
Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

The remote village of Sagada is nestled in the Cordillera Central mountains of northern Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and most populated island. It’s a bumpy, winding 8.5-hour drive from Manila, but those willing to make the journey will encounter an ancient custom that’s as haunting as it is remarkable.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

In a ritual believed to date back 2,000 years, the Igorot people bury their dead in hand-carved coffins that are tied or nailed to the side of a cliff and suspended high above the ground below. This gravity-defying graveyard is believed to bring the departed closer to their ancestral spirits.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Traditionally, the elderly have hollowed their own coffins from local timber and painted their names on the side. Before a corpse is laid in the coffin, it is placed in a wooden ‘death chair’, tied with leaves and vines and covered with a blanket. The body is then smoked to delay it from rotting as relatives pay their respects over several days.

Coffins hang from a cliff in Sagada, the Philippines

Coffins hang from a cliff in Sagada, the Philippines

According to Igorot guide Siegrid Bangyay, in the past, family members moving the corpse from the death chair to the casket would have to break the dead person’s bones to stuff it into the 1m-long coffins in the foetal position. Today, the hanging coffins tend to be larger and are roughly 2m in length.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

It’s like returning back to where you came from, in the foetal position in the womb,” Bangyay said.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

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.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

While the Igorots' ancient funeral rite is unique in the Philippines, hanging coffins off crags has historically been practised in pockets of China and Indonesia. Elsewhere, this cliff-face custom ceased long ago, but in Sagada, the tradition lives on. According to Bangyay, the last cliff burial took place in 2010.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

In recent years, a trickle of interested travellers 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.

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

Philippines, hanging coffins, Igorot

According to Bangyay, there are far fewer hanging-coffin burials in Sagada than in previous generations. Yet she strongly believes the tradition will continue. In fact, she herself hopes to one day enter the afterlife this way, transforming, as she says, from ‘a tourist guide to a tourist attraction’.

View in Sagada, the Philippines

View in Sagada, the Philippines

In the series, Philippines: Island Treasures, BBC World News broadcaster Rico Hizon joins nature enthusiast Mike Dilger on a journey to discover the vibrant culture and fascinating wildlife of the Philippines. Philippines: Island Treasures airs Fridays at 21:30 local time on BBC World News. Learn more about the series and upcoming episodes here.