Whenever you visit another country, you need to consider its cultures and customs. Of course, it’s great to try unfamiliar foods and take in the spectacular sights, but it’s important to remember that they’re all connected to the unique history and lifestyle of the local culture… and sometimes, their traditions can be difficult to understand.
Take Sagada, for example, a unique town in the Philippines. At first glance, it seems like an exotic paradise… until you notice the strange objects hanging from its mountain cliffs and caves. If you think they’re merely strange decorations, think again—the truth is much more disturbing!
The municipality of Sagada in the north of the Philippines is stunningly beautiful. It’s full of fascinating caves, majestic mountains, and breathtaking wilderness. These seemingly endless rice terraces alone, for example, are utterly breathtaking.
Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons
However, this little village may be best known for something else entirely. Look closely and you’ll see strange, manmade objects hanging off of the mountain cliffs in the Echo Valley region. They’ve fascinated locals and tourists alike for many generations…
Pratyeka / Wikimedia Commons
So, what are those large wooden boxes doing populating such an exquisite natural wonder? Well, they’re not just there for decoration. In fact, they’re of grave cultural, historical, and even personal importance to many living in the area.
That’s because these are “hanging coffins.” Suspending coffins is actually an ancient practice that’s been in place for many centuries all around the world, including several different regions in China, as well as Sulawesi, Indonesia.
By far, the most famous hanging coffins in the world remain in Segada. Curious and adventurous tourists travel from far and wide to appreciate these unique—if morbid—sights. There’s really nothing else like them.
Seeing as this strange tradition has been upheld for more than 2,000 years, one might think there’d be even more coffins hanging from these cliffs than are visible. The problem is that, eventually, they all deteriorate and fall off!
The upside is that this cycle makes more room for other hanging coffins to be added to the cliffs over time. As a matter of fact, some of the hanging coffins are well over a century old!
One of the other fascinating things about these coffins—perhaps more than the fact that they hang over mountains—is that each of these caskets is carved out of hollowed logs, usually by their elderly inhabitants themselves before they die.
stevepb / Pixabay
While it seems macabre, it’s a long-standing tradition for the people of Sagada. That said, the younger, more able-bodied members of the family will step in to build coffins for their elders if they are too sick or weak to do it themselves.
Once the loved ones have passed and they’re ready to be buried, the process of suspending them isn’t an easy one. Sometimes, the corpses won’t properly fit in the coffins, so their bones have to be broken in order to squeeze the bodies in.
Similar to the way that many cultures arrange for their deceased loved ones to be placed near other family members in a cemetery, the deceased people of Sagada usually hang near their kin and ancestors as well.
So with that in mind, why do the locals of Sagada choose to lay their deceased loved ones to rest so high above the ground rather than six feet underground, as most other cultures throughout the rest of the world do?
burying / Wikimedia Commons
It may surprise some folks to learn that this unique burial ritual is actually rooted in a religious belief that’s not so unusual. Those with even a passing knowledge of the religions throughout the modern world would understand…
The practice of elevating coffins mostly stems from a rather common belief that has existed throughout many civilizations since ancient times. They associate the sky with a sense of spirituality, or in a more literal sense, heaven itself.
ModernMedicineLady / Pixabay
With a similar mindset remaining crucial to their culture, many people in Sagada have historically believed that, by placing their fallen loved ones on a literally higher plane, they would reach a greater spiritual place in the afterlife.
Magalhães / Wikimedia Commons
Unsurprisingly, these breathtaking above-ground cemeteries are quite difficult for the average visitor to access, but they’re easy to see through binoculars, a camera, and even the naked eye.
Jungarcia888 / Wikimedia Commons
Visitors who happen to get closer to the hanging coffins shouldn’t forget that the site is more than just a curiosity; it’s a real cemetery. The coffins are not to be touched or even walked under, and they should be respected just as much as any other gravesite!
William Murphy / Flickr
Those interested in visiting these hanging coffins should know that it’s quite a long journey. Visitors planning to fly to the Philippines from most other places in the world will probably land in the capital city of Manila…
Badudoy / Wikimedia Commons
From the Philippines’s most bustling metropolis, it’ll take at least 12 hours by bus or car just to reach Sagada… and that’s if they’re traveling during the summer! For anyone who visits during the rainy season, it’ll take even longer.
Regardless of whether you plan to make the long, challenging (and likely expensive) trek to Sagada, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most special—if more than a bit morbid—places on Earth!
It’s amazing that this special, if not strange, tradition has continued in Sagada for this long. These people are truly dedicated to their past!
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