In most Western countries, death is celebrated with an often solemn ceremony, and the deceased is interred in a necropolis, a city of the dead (more colloquially known as a graveyard or cemetery.) The burial site is often given a marker or memorial so the deceased may be remembered by future visitors to the site. Of course, funeral rites vary from place to place but in most cases, great care and ceremony are involved.
The people of Sagada in the Philippines follow a unique burial ritual. 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. Instead of being placed into the ground, the coffins are hung either inside the caves or on the face of the cliffs, near the hanging coffins of their ancestors. The Sagada people have been practicing such burials for over 2000 years, and some of the coffins are well over a century old. Eventually the coffins deteriorate and fall from their precarious positions. Of course, there is always a steady stream of new arrivals to replace them. The last known burial in this fashion was in 1992.
Coffins of various shapes were mostly carved from one whole piece of wood. Hanging coffins either lie on beams projecting outward from vertical faces such as mountains, are placed in caves in the face of cliffs, or sit on natural rock projections on mountain faces. It was said that the hanging coffins could prevent bodies from being taken by beasts and also bless the soul eternally. Hanging coffins come in three types. Some are cantilevered out on wooden stakes, some are placed in caves while others sit on projections in the rock. The coffins are mainly clustered where some 100 coffins are hung on the limestone cliffs.
Many of the locations of the coffins are difficult to reach (and obviously should be left alone out of respect) but can be appreciated from afar. The hanging coffin was the most widespread form of burial in ancient southwest China. However, the practice ended with the mysterious disappearance of the Bo People. Those who came after knew them from the hanging coffins and the paintings they left behind like faint echoes on the cliffs. The ancient flowering of that kind of culture, like that of the Maya, is no more. Some believed the coffins must have been lowered down with ropes from the top of the mountain. Some thought the coffins had been put in place using wooden stakes inserted into the cliff face to be used as artificial climbing aids. Others felt that scaling ladders were the answer. Lin said they could leave the mystery for later generations to solve.
Based on tradition, the coffin of the deceased is passed to family members or friends. They then take turns carrying it until they reach the cave. The coffins are smaller than the usual size and the dead are forced into a fetal position to fit in the coffin. The locals believed that the dead will have its complete peace when it is placed the way it took form. Not surprisingly, the act of placing the coffins on the cliffs requires a tremendous amount of effort. Men would bind themselves in ropes to climb the steep mountainside and haul the body and the coffin. Once the resting place is reached, the coffin is secured in place before prayers are chanted and the men bid the dead a final farewell.
This dying tradition is no longer a common practice for the locals of Sagada. The latest addition to the hanging coffins was in 2008, after a long interval. With little new coffins added to the cliffs, and with the existing ones exposed to the elements, it’s really anyone’s guess how long it’ll be before they become history. Could it be a possible stairway to heaven? Exposure is not typically practiced intentionally in the West today. More often, it results from an accident where someone dies in an isolated location and the body goes unnoticed for a period of time. However, there are people who dispose of bodies in this manner on a regular basis.
Tibetan sky burial (known as a “jahtor”) is the ritual dissection of the body, in which it is laid out for the animals or elements to dispose of. Tibet is a mountainous land where the soil is too rocky to dig graves and there is a scarcity of fuel for cremation, so sky burial arose as a logical alternative. Here’s how it works. After being ceremonially sent on their way, the remains of the deceased are toted up to a designated location where the body is typically laid out naked. Then the rogyapas (body-breakers) go to work. Flesh is stripped from bones, limbs are hacked away and the whole body is ground up and sometimes mixed with tsampa (a mixture of barley flour, tea, and yak butter or milk) and offered to the vultures (which have learned to keep watch on the traditional burial site). The rogyapas do not go about their task with somber ritual, but instead laugh, joke and chat as they would during any other manual labor.