Editors' Choice

Skeletons in the Closet

by Tibor Krausz

From dust to dust, more or less.

"There lies my grandmother!" exclaims the prickly-haired 20-year-old Sagadan curiously named Birdy, who has volunteered to be my guide. Casting my gaze horizontally in search of a tombstone, I find his index finger directing my eyes heavenward.

There in the middle-distance, on a rock-face high overhead, hang pinewood coffins suspended seemingly on thin air. Birdy indicates a new, still unweathered, off-white casket beneath three others in its row. "That's my grandmother! We hung her last year."

Some of the dead, like Birdy's grandmother, have never left the tranquil highland community of Sagada in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. Conspicuously in sight, they're reclining in simple pinewood coffins hanging from jagged cliff-faces all around town.

A snaking pathway past the Catholic cemetery with its neat white headstones atop an old sacred hill on the outskirts of town leads treacherously among vicious thorns and spiteful thistles down into Echo Valley, where the voices of age-old burial customs still reverberate. An abrupt pine-clad gorge hedged in by spiky ash-gray volcanic rock formations resembling leaping flames suddenly frozen stiff, Echo Valley is home to Sagada's famed Hanging Coffins. (Appearing to hang from a distance, most coffins actually rest on iron bars hammered into the rock face.) Although nowadays most Sagadans receive Catholic burials, Birdy's grandmother, who died at age 82, insisted on time-honored Sagadan last rites. Accordingly, her relatives decked her out in lavishly woven traditional garments and tied her seated to a sangachil, or "death chair" made of pine boughs, facing her house's front door. Smoking her with a wet fire continuously burning beside her corpse, thereby preserving her body for the five days of the burial feast, relatives and friends wined and dined her by placing her favorite dishes at her feet and regaling her with stories and songs.

"I even played with her," Birdy tells me. Playfully-mournfully relatives took turns carrying her body by hand down to Echo Valley, as if she were—pardon the analogy—a rugby ball. An occasional unexpected squirt of bodily fluids, Birdy explains, bestowed great good fortune on the bearer who received it. Once in Echo Valley, they hauled her, encased now in her new pine coffin, up to her final resting place. "Up there," Birdy suggests, "she's closer to Heaven."

More prosaically, Sagadans probably started hanging coffins to protect their inhabitants from frequent monsoon floods. In the cavernous Lumiang Burial Cave, a mile or so away, hundreds of other coffins—chunky hollowed-out tree trunks—are piled up against walls, their owners tied in a fetal position as if returned to the womb. Some carved coffin lids support lizard motifs, and locals will tell you of a king-size cobra they recently found lurking among the caskets. Perhaps, they ponder, a reincarnated Sagadan?
Traditions of kin relationships transcending death aren't confined to Sagada. Permeating Central Cordillera in Northern Luzon are funerary customs peculiar enough to make an aspiring anthropologist out of any wayward traveler. In Banaue, home to the world's finest rice terraces now listed as a UNESCO heritage site, Ifugao families keep skeletons literally in the closet.

"Would you like to see the bones?" is a staple Ifugao query to tourists, I discover. For 50 pesos (around $1), a middle-aged, prematurely wrinkled Ifugao woman readily admits me into her wood-planked homestead, whereupon she fetches a bundle of traditionally woven fabrics. She unrolls it, revealing an intact unassembled human skeleton. Generally, such family relics belong to a great-grandfather, a grandmother, or another esteemed dearly departed.

In this case they belong to an aunt. With her daughter of six nibbling cashews at my feet, the woman asks me if, for another 50 pesos, I want to take my picture with her aunt's skull. Heaven knows it's not every day I get the chance to be photographed with a skull posing as a roving Hamlet with a pensive frown. Still, I timidly decline. Far from just being extra income sources as tourist traps, the bones of old Ifugao are preserved lovingly in the hope that dead relatives, if properly pampered, will render their living kin important otherworldly services. In case of sickness in the family, the Ifugao will painstakingly scrub a dead relative's bones and offer the disembodied dead person yummy dishes at the dinner table.

"I used to think it was old superstition, nothing more," an Ifugao woman in her mid-thirties who has received a Catholic education tells me in almost flawless English inside her wizened elderly mother's dusty souvenir shop on the main dirt drag that passes for downtown in Banaue village. A single bare light bulb, bearing the burnt remains of ill-starred insects, casts snarling shadows at the walls from dust-coated wood carvings of headhunting warriors testifying to erstwhile pursuits of local tribesmen. "But not long ago, my sister came down with a terrible migraine the local doctor couldn't heal. When we took out my grandfather's bones we found his skull swarming with ants. Once we cleaned off the skull, my sister's headaches vanished forever. Just like that, can you believe it?!" She glances fondly at her mother. "When one day her own time to go comes we'll keep her, too, here with us."

Despite such peculiar customs, the local Ifugao enjoy well-deserved fame for another cultivated habit: their agricultural know-how. Employing simple tools like spades and digging sticks, generation after generation of local farmers—formerly bare-chested and in G-strings, now in tattered jeans and T shirts—have been cultivating rice on hundreds upon hundreds of paddies that hug mountainsides at altitudes of up to 1,500 meters. Constantly guarded against natural erosion, the packed earth or loose stone retaining walls of terraces, occasionally reaching up to 17 meters, support an elaborate system of ponds and dikes.
From elevated roadside viewpoints, reached in smoke-belching tricycle rickshaws that ferry passengers up the pockmarked narrow asphalt road snaking precipitously up the mountainside, the terraces appear like colossal, finely contoured mosaics sculpted out of raw earth and painted in hues of green. From down below, after a perilous descent to one of the interlinking valleys, they seem suspended above the landscape like airborne, carpeted steps of giants ascending to heaven (brush with purple prose notwithstanding).

Any traveler on vacation from cosseted culinary existence granted by myriad restaurants and supermarkets must accord proper awe to the Ifugao for the communal toil required just to put food on the table. Negotiating their way between crescent-shaped paddies covering entire hillsides, Ifugao children in cheap plastic flip-flops sprint like spry mountain gazelles past sore-legged visitors, stopping just long enough to reach out a palm for a few pesos or candies. From as early as age eight or nine, boys and girls work alongside their parents and grandparents on their families' plots during school breaks. Meanwhile, for urbanized folks like me, the acquisition of food generally means nothing more strenuous than a hop down to the corner store.

But I digress. The mummies are waiting at the end of a six-hour vertebrae-fusing bumpy ride on dirt tracks in the back of a battered jeepney (one of the country's trademark American-style military jeeps converted into gaudy passenger pickups). The small farming town of Kabayan, near the "Philippine Shangri-La" of Baguio some 150 miles north of Manila, once nurtured one of the few known mummifying cultures on earth. Discovered by the outside world in the early 1900s, the mummies—shriveled, desiccated corpses with skin as brittle as ancient parchment and anywhere between 500 and 3,000-plus years old—continue to defy from-dust-to-dust oblivion. The local Ibaloi people, justifiably fearing unscrupulous grave robbers, jealously guard the secret of several burial caves: Once disturbed, vengeful mummies (erstwhile luminaries of the tribe) might visit untold havoc on their latter-day progeny.

Luckily, the small Kabayan Museum displays some of the better preserved specimens, their features still distinguishable. At pride of place is Apo Annu, a 16th century chieftain exquisitely tattooed with the protective marks of headhunter-warriors. In several adjacent showcase caves, mummies slumber inside pod-shape wooden caskets, like hibernating prehistoric proto-astronauts.

A regular ghoul by now, I go dead-hunting back in sprawling, hectic Manila too. Though a world away from Saganda and Kabayan, I find the dearly departed lovingly indulged here as well. In the vast Chinese Cemetery the richest residents on Millionaire's Row are enshrined in palatial tombs with their own air-conditioners, kitchens, flush toilets, hot and cold water taps, and—luxury of luxuries—television sets in case the interred wish to return for a peek at the latest Jackie Chan flick.

Outside the cemetery gates, some resident beggars from a neighboring slum cadge me for handouts. It's an unsettling feeling to discover that between the quick and the dead, the latter seem to have the better deal.


Tibor Krausz has written about travel for The Washington Post, The Guardian and The National Post, among others.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Tibor Krausz

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