Northern Luzon, Philippines, Gran Cordillera: about 450 km by road from Manila, much of which is uphill, winding and often unpaved: an overnight trip on a local bus. So much is needed to reach Sagada, but it is worth it: only a dozen hours to make a leap back in time of at least thirty years and plunge into a reality still untouched by mass tourism. As it almost always happens to me, the idea was born overnight: a chat with a friend who had already been over there was enough to awaken my curiosity; from words to action the step was short.
Philippines is an archipelago of 7100 islands located between the Sea of China to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, world-famous for its beautiful seaside resorts like Boracay or Palawan, destinations of tourists from all over the world. But for my first visit to this country, and as I usually do, I preferred to go an obstinate and opposite way, and despite such a beautiful (if crowded) sea, I opted for peace, silence and the chill of the mountains.
And so I immersed myself in the timeless atmosphere made of superb landscapes and terraced rice fields, where man lives extorting concessions from the mountain, creating spaces of daily life between the road and the rock face. Like in Banaue, where women wash their clothes in streams that flow where mountains meets the few meters of flat, wide carriageway; or like those guys who hung an unlikely basket on the rock, then happily play basketball – patiently halting when any car pass by.
People suspended between the earth and the sky, suspended on a day-to-day life consisting of small, every day achievements to make the most of the small spaces that the ungrateful territory seems to reluctantly concede them. And also, a spirituality and a love for nature that only constant contact with nature itself can lead to extreme limits. People who continue to be suspended between earth and heaven even after death, as evidenced by the coffins that hang on the sides of some mountains of Sagada. Yet, in this case it is no longer a question of space but rather the ancestral culture of the local population of the Igorot people.
This ancient practice, which is not exclusive to this mountain people since it exists ands still survives in some areas of Indonesia and China, was founded by the now bi-millennial belief that the higher the body of the deceased was placed after death, the closest it would be to the sky and to the spirits of its ancestors. Not to mention the less impressive yet certainly more materialistic and more practical aspect: to ensure greater protection to the deceased both from wild animals and from natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, far from being rare in this part of the world.
According to customs, the coffins were roughly carved by the elderlies themselves when they felt the fatal moment approaching; in case of illness or physical impediment of the dying person, it was a son or a close relative to build the catafalque.
The ritual then called for a few days to pass between the death and the placing of the body inside a coffin previously fastened to the mountain wall with ropes and hooks; it was therefore necessary to smoke the body in order to prevent rapid decomposition.
At the end of the vigil, during which the family of the deceased received visits and gifts from the rest of the population, a funeral procession accompanied the body to the burial place, and some young people climbed the rock to lay the corpse inside the coffin in a foetal position. Igorot people in fact believed that the departure of a person were to take place in the same position as he had prepared to come into the world, almost wanting to arrange a rebirth.
Nowadays we live in a world that travels faster and faster towards modernisation and a certain form of globalisation, at the expense of customs and traditions that will end up in drawers of memories forgotten along the times. In today’s world, the Sagada elders are amongst the last recipients of this ancient ritual. The new generations, mainly influenced by the country’s deep Christian convictions, have a tendency towards more compliant ways of burial, better suited to keep alive the ‘conformity of amorous feelings’ for which ‘you live with your extinct friend, and your extinct friend with you’. The burial in the local cemetery is therefore preferred: it makes it easier to visit the remains of their loved ones more often. At the cemetery on a hill called Echo Valley, a splendid view of Sagada can be enjoyed along the promenade leading to the mountains of the suspended tombs through a dirt and sometimes slippery path. Asia is a continent perpetually suspended between old and new, and it is right at Echo Valley that one of its most picturesque customs will meet its ultimate burial.
I visited Sagada in May 2013. I ventured down the path that through the cemetery led to a vantage point from where, even from a distance, you could see the Igorot suspended graves. Despite the valley of the echo implicitly invited to make noise tests to ascertain the true extent of the phenomenon, a sense of respect prevented me from having a less considerate behaviour towards the intensity that such a place can inspire. I was so suspended in that silence so fraught with emotions that I preferred to fully enjoy the feeling of immortality that oozed from the remains of those anonymous albeit suspended people. At that time, the last suspended coffin dated back to June 2008.