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Igorot Funeral Traditions and Burial Customs

Discover the rich and unique funeral traditions and burial customs of the Igorot people of the Cordilleras in this comprehensive guide.

 |  21 min read

Gain a deeper understanding of the Igorot people's culture and respect for their ancestors through this exploration of their funeral traditions and burial customs. This comprehensive guide provides insights into the meanings behind these practices.

In the highlands of the Cordillera Administrative Region in the Philippines, the Igorots have fascinating funeral traditions. In this article, we'll delve into the world of Igorot funeral customs. These customs are deeply rooted in Igorot culture, reflecting their beliefs, practices, and spiritual significance. Join us on this journey to explore the rich tapestry of Igorot funeral traditions and discover their unique cultural importance.

Diverse Igorot Groups and Practices

In the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines, a tapestry of diverse Igorot communities flourishes, each weaving its unique funeral traditions and practices. These indigenous groups, including the Kankana-ey, Ifugao, Ibaloi, and many more, add vibrant threads to the fabric of Igorot culture.

While common funeral elements unite these communities, the specifics of their practices often diverge due to distinct cultural beliefs. For instance, the Ifugao's elaborate rituals may contrast with the Kankana-ey's simpler yet equally meaningful customs.

This article not only explores the previously mentioned practices but also unveils the funeral traditions of other Igorot communities, presenting a comprehensive portrayal of the diverse and culturally rich tapestry that is Igorot culture.

Beliefs about the Afterlife and Mourning

Central to Igorot funeral traditions are their deep-seated beliefs about the afterlife. The Igorots envision an afterlife where the spirits of the departed continue their journey. These spiritual beliefs profoundly shape their funeral customs.

Igorots believe that the spirits of the deceased stay close to their loved ones, and proper funeral rituals are essential to ensure a smooth transition to the afterlife. For instance, the practice of placing a lit "tobacco" between the lips of the deceased in Manabo, Abra, serves as a symbolic gesture to help guide the spirit.

Mourning is not only a personal but a communal experience. The Igorots believe in the collective responsibility of honoring the dead. Mourning rituals, such as the "bangil" in Benguet or the "baya-o" in Mountain Province, include the narration of the deceased's biography, sometimes even including their wrongdoings. These rituals serve as a form of eulogy, where the community comes together to remember and celebrate the life of the departed.

These spiritual beliefs underline the significance of Igorot funeral customs. They ensure that the deceased are properly guided to the afterlife and that the living can find solace in the remembrance of their loved ones.

Mumbakis play a vital role in Ifugao culture, presiding over religious ceremonies and rituals.

Role of Shaman and Elders in Mourning Rituals

In the highlands of the Cordillera Administrative Region, the Igorot communities rely on spiritual leaders known by different names, such as "mumbakis" in Ifugao and "mambunong" in others. These spiritual guides hold a crucial role in conducting funeral and mourning rituals, each community having its unique approach.

Mumbakis and their counterparts provide a bridge between the living and the spirit world. They facilitate communication with the departed, offer prayers, and ensure the peaceful transition of spirits to the afterlife. The "bogwa" ritual of the Ifugao, for instance, involves mumbakis and tribal elders in a three-day process, which includes the careful exhumation, cleaning, and rewrapping of the deceased's bones.

Elders, recognized for their wisdom and leadership, play a significant role in these mourning ceremonies. They carry the responsibility of preserving tradition and cultural knowledge. Their presence provides solace and guidance to the bereaved, making the grieving process more bearable. During the "kadwa" phase of the "bogwa" ritual, immediate family members prepare food and drink, creating a sense of community to support one another through the mourning period.

Shamans and elders are the custodians of Igorot culture and spirituality. Their essential roles in funeral and mourning rituals not only uphold tradition but also offer comfort to those in mourning, ensuring that the spirits of the departed find their way in the afterlife.

Rituals and Practices Across Igorot Communities

In the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines, the Igorot people, with their diverse cultural tapestry, have woven a rich tapestry of funeral traditions and burial customs. These practices vary among different Igorot groups, each bearing its unique cultural beliefs and rituals.

Let's delve into the tapestry of these customs, exploring the distinct practices of various Igorot communities.

Traditional Wake and Burial Practices among the Igorot

Wakes and burials within Igorot communities are steeped in traditional customs, reflecting the enduring cultural identity of these indigenous peoples. Let's explore these age-old practices associated with wakes and burials among the Igorot.

Traditional Wake Practices

1. Community Gathering and Binnadang Spirit: When an Igorot community member passes away, the news swiftly spreads throughout the community, facilitated by traditional means. Family and friends assemble to provide solace to the grieving family and offer their condolences. In these gatherings, community members engage in collective efforts, with men cutting firewood for cooking, and women contributing to traditional housewife roles such as meal preparation.

2. The Wake: The wake is a significant period for the Igorot family and community to come together and mourn the deceased. It's a time to both grieve and celebrate the life of the departed, preparing them for their journey into the afterlife. Lasting several days, the coffin is placed in the center of the house, serving as a focal point for the rituals and ceremonies. Family and community members gather around the coffin to engage in singing, praying, and storytelling, where they share anecdotes and memories of the deceased. This communal gathering plays a vital role in fostering a sense of togetherness and honoring the departed.

3. Watwat - Community Feast: Watwat is a traditional Igorot practice that involves feeding the community during wakes. This communal feast is marked by the butchering of multiple pigs and other animals from the start of the wake until the burial, with the quantity of animals sacrificed often varying among ethnic groups. The act of Watwat goes beyond providing sustenance; it is a deeply rooted tradition with cultural and spiritual significance. It is believed that by sharing this feast with the community, the spirits of the deceased are appeased, ensuring a safe journey to the afterlife. Watwat exemplifies the unity and the enduring connection between the living and the departed in Igorot culture.

Traditional Burial Customs

1. Preparing the Body for Burial: After the wake, the body of the deceased is carefully prepared for the burial. This process typically involves cleansing and dressing the body in traditional attire. Family members adorn the deceased with jewelry and personal belongings, symbolizing their life's achievements.

2. Positioning in a Fetal Pose: In preparation for the afterlife, the body is placed in a fetal position, signifying the idea of rebirth or transformation into another realm. This positioning holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for the Igorot.

3. Community Involvement: The Igorot community plays a crucial role in burial customs. They assist in the burial process, from digging the grave to conducting the final rituals. This communal involvement reinforces the strong sense of unity within Igorot communities.

4. Spiritual Ceremonies and Sacrifices: Before and after the burial, spiritual ceremonies are performed. These ceremonies involve prayers and offerings to appease the spirits and ensure a safe passage for the departed to the afterlife. Sacrifices of animals, like pigs and chickens, are often carried out as part of these rituals.

5. Burial Sites and Locations: Igorot communities have specific burial sites and locations, often elevated or within caves, that hold cultural and spiritual significance. These sites are carefully maintained, reflecting the enduring respect and reverence for their ancestors and departed loved ones.

6. Commemorative Rituals: After the burial, commemorative rituals may be observed on specific occasions, such as death anniversaries or cultural celebrations. These rituals involve visiting the graves of the departed, offering prayers, and sometimes, having another communal feast to remember and honor their ancestors.

These traditional Igorot wake and burial practices not only celebrate the life of the departed but also underline the strong cultural ties and spiritual beliefs of these indigenous communities. These customs have transcended time, continuing to be an integral part of Igorot identity and heritage.

While we have provided an overview of the traditional wake and burial practices among the Igorot, it's important to note that Igorot communities are diverse, and specific rituals and practices can vary among different ethnic groups. The following sections will delve into these unique cultural practices, providing a more in-depth understanding of the rich tapestry of Igorot funeral traditions.

Hudhud chant, a UNESCO-recognized masterpiece, performed during Bogwa, a traditional Ifugao ritual

Hudhud chants of the Ifugao

The Hudhud chants, inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, are an important part of the funeral and burial traditions of the Ifugao people of the Philippines. The chants are performed by skilled narrators, who are typically elderly women. The chants tell stories of the Ifugao people, including their history, culture, and beliefs. They also provide guidance and comfort to the bereaved.

Hudhud chants are performed at various stages of the funeral process. They may be performed at the wake, during the burial ceremony, and even after the burial. The chants can last for several days, and they are often accompanied by music and dance.

One of the main purposes of the Hudhud chants in funeral and burial traditions is to help the deceased transition to the afterlife. The chants tell stories of how the Ifugao people's ancestors made the journey to the afterlife. They also provide the deceased with instructions on how to navigate the afterlife.

The Hudhud chants also play an important role in helping the bereaved to cope with their grief. The chants remind the bereaved of their connection to their ancestors and to the community. They also offer comfort and support during a difficult time.

Here are some specific examples of how Hudhud chants are used in Ifugao funeral and burial traditions:

  • During the wake, Hudhud chants are performed to tell stories of the deceased's life and to praise their accomplishments. The chants also help to prepare the deceased for their journey to the afterlife.
  • At the burial ceremony, Hudhud chants are performed to guide the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. The chants also help to protect the living from the spirit of the deceased.
  • After the burial, Hudhud chants may be performed to comfort the bereaved and to help them to cope with their grief. The chants also help to maintain the connection between the living and the dead.

The Hudhud chants are an important part of the Ifugao people's cultural heritage. They play a vital role in funeral and burial traditions, helping the deceased to transition to the afterlife and the bereaved to cope with their grief.

Bangil Ritual in Benguet Province

Benguet province, known for its breathtaking landscapes, also boasts a unique funeral custom called "bangil." This ritual takes place on the eve of a funeral and is an oral narration of the biography of the deceased. As bamboo sticks are rhythmically struck together during interment, the spirit of the departed is guided toward the heavens. The sound resonates with a profound spiritual significance, symbolizing the journey of the soul to the afterlife.

Baya-o in Mountain Province

In Mountain Province, a similar ritual known as "baya-o" is observed. "Baya-o" serves as a narration of the deceased's biography, often including anecdotes about their life and even their wrongdoings. This oral tradition is infused with deep emotion and is delivered through song. The individual who performs the "baya-o" shares stories about the departed, and the community joins in chorus during this poignant eulogy. It's a heartfelt way of remembering and celebrating the life of the departed.

Panag-apoy in Sagada, Mountain Province Photo: Dako Bagano, 2019

Panag-apoy in Sagada, Mountain Province

In Sagada, a town within the Mountain Province of the Philippines, the annual tradition of Panag-apoy is a deeply cherished cultural practice. Taking place on All Saints' Day, November 1st, Panag-apoy is a Kankana-ey term that means "lighting a fire." This tradition involves using resin-rich fatwood from pine trees to create bonfires in the cemetery, illuminating the resting places of departed loved ones. A priest blesses the fatwood before its use, emphasizing its spiritual significance.

As night falls, the community gathers at the cemetery, offering prayers and moments of reflection. The bonfires continue to burn throughout the night, symbolically lighting the path for the departed. Panag-apoy serves as a solemn and heartwarming testament to the enduring bonds between the living and the deceased, fostering a deep connection between life and death within Kankana-ey culture.

Bogwa: A centuries-old Ifugao tradition of bonewashing and reburial Photo: Teddy Baguilat Jr

Bogwa in Ifugao

'Bogwa' is a unique and deeply rooted ritual practiced by the Ifugao people in the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines. This tradition is a way for the Ifugao community to honor their ancestors and maintain a spiritual connection with them. The ritual involves exhuming the bones of the deceased, cleaning and rewrapping them, and returning them to the grave. It's more than just a form of mourning; it's a celebration of life, love, and the enduring connection between the living and the departed.

The 'Bogwa' ceremony unfolds over several days and consists of various stages, including feasting, butchering animals, and performing unique rituals like 'Kig-gad.' This final phase involves poultry sacrifices and prayers for blessings in different aspects of life, from prosperity in agriculture to protection from deceit and obstacles in daily life.

Although 'Bogwa' has evolved over time, it remains a powerful symbol of the Ifugao people's commitment to their rich culture and serves as a bridge connecting different communities in the Cordillera region.

Ibaloi mummification is a testament to the Igorot people's deep respect for their ancestors and their rich cultural heritage. Photo: alexisduclos

Ibaloi Mummification in Benguet

Ibaloi mummification is an ancient practice of preserving the deceased among the Ibaloi people, an indigenous community in the Philippines. This tradition is rooted in deep spiritual beliefs and cultural significance. The mummification process involves intricate steps such as a saltwater purge, washing, positioning the body in a specific manner, and the use of plant concoctions and woodfire smoke to preserve the body.

One of the most renowned figures in Ibaloi mummification history is Apo Anno, believed to be the first fire mummy, who lived between 1100 and 1500 AD. These mummies were created as early as 2000 BCE and are carefully preserved in natural caves and museums in Kabayan, Benguet. They serve as living testaments to the Ibaloi's rich cultural heritage, reflecting their deep reverence for their ancestors and commitment to preserving traditions.

Additionally, the Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves, where many of these mummies are found, hold national and global significance, recognized as Philippine National Cultural Treasures and under consideration for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sangadil: A Traditional Igorot Funeral, 1930s.

Sangadil in the Cordillera

Sangadil is a profound and cherished funeral tradition among the Igorot people of the Cordillera region in the Philippines. In this age-old practice, the deceased individual is seated on a wooden chair, symbolizing their final connection to the living world before their journey to the afterlife. This tradition extends across various Igorot ethnic groups, with little to no variation in its essential practices, and is primarily reserved for the "kadangyan" or wealthy individuals due to the resources involved.

Sangachil: For weeks, the people of Abra dress their dead bodies in the best garments, make them sit on a rocking chair (Butaka), and sometimes place a lit "tobacco" on between the lips of the deceased.

The process of Sangadil begins with meticulous body preparation. The deceased is carefully washed and dressed in their finest clothes, adorned with precious jewelry and personal belongings that symbolize their life's accomplishments. The body is then placed in a dignified sitting position on a wooden chair, a position that holds profound significance. This seated position allows for the person's removal from the chair after drying, followed by turning the body sideways into a fetal position, which is integral to the preparation for the afterlife. The chair is prominently positioned within the community, often in areas like the town square or church, allowing family and friends to gather, pay their respects, and share stories and memories during the multi-day Sangadil ritual. This practice beautifully encapsulates the Igorot people's deep respect for their loved ones and their dedication to celebrating lives in a unique and meaningful way.

These customs provide a more profound understanding of the diverse and culturally rich funeral traditions across Igorot communities, where every practice carries its unique symbolism and significance.

The Tingguian people of Abra province have a unique and ancient funeral tradition called Panagbaniit. This ritual is a way to honor the deceased and to announce their passing to the community. Photo: Vera Files (edited)

Tingguian Panagbaniit in Abra

"Panagbaniit" is a time-honored funeral tradition practiced by the Tingguian community in Abra, within the Cordillera Administrative Region. This unique ritual holds a special place in Tingguian culture, symbolizing their deep-rooted beliefs in the afterlife and their unwavering commitment to honoring their ancestors.

At its core, "Panagbaniit" serves a dual purpose in Tingguian society. It acts as an offering to the spirits of their ancestors and, at the same time, as a solemn announcement that a member of the community has passed away. The significance of this tradition lies in the belief that ancestral spirits play a crucial role in protecting the departed in the afterlife. "Panagbaniit" is not just a ritual; it is a profound expression of Tingguian spirituality and their enduring connection to their cultural heritage.

One of the intriguing elements of "Panagbaniit" is the presence of a decaying chick at the entrance of the mourning site. This chick, once alive and vibrant, is skewered on bamboo, serving as an invitation to Tingguian relatives from various places. They gather to pay their respects to the deceased, reinforcing the sense of community and shared heritage.

The ritual also incorporates elements like "Baniit" and "Sangsangit," which are offerings to ancestral spirits and solemn chants or dirges, respectively. These components are integral to Tingguian funeral traditions, further emphasizing the cultural significance of "Panagbaniit." Through this ritual, the Tingguian culture ensures that the departed find solace and protection in the company of their ancestors, bridging the past and the present in a meaningful way.

Sacred Sites in the Cordilleras

The Cordillera region is known not just for its unique funeral traditions but also for its sacred grounds and burial sites. These places are a testament to the deep connection that the Igorot people have with their ancestors and the land. Let's explore some of these remarkable locations:

Apfo'or Burial Tomb of Mayoyao, Ifugao

Apfo'or Burial Tombs in Ifugao

In the lush highlands of Mayoyao, Ifugao, something fascinating was discovered. The same techniques used to build the iconic Ifugao rice terraces were also used to construct a hill known as the Apfo'or Burial Tomb. It's an amazing example of ancient engineering, employing the same rocky methods as the rice terraces.

This mountain is popularly known as the home of the Kankana-ey diety, Kabunian.

Bakun, Benguet Burial Grounds

Tucked away in Bakun, Benguet, there's a mountain that's famous as the dwelling place of the Kankanaey god, "Kabunian". This mountain carries significant cultural and spiritual importance.

Some of the steep rocky slopes of the mountain used to be burial grounds, and that's why we find ancient box coffins and human remains. The rocky summit of the mountain presents a challenging destination for rock climbers and mountain trekkers.

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Mountain Province

Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Mountain Province

One of the most iconic and intriguing burial traditions within the Cordillera region is the practice of hanging coffins in Sagada, Mountain Province. This ancient custom involves suspending coffins from the rocky cliffs of the Echo Valley.

The purpose of this unique burial practice is to bring the departed closer to the heavens. These hanging coffins are primarily reserved for elderly Igorot individuals with families. It is believed that the younger generations can benefit spiritually from the success of this burial ritual.

Family members play a crucial role in this tradition. They may be asked to carry the deceased to the waiting coffin at the edge of the ravine. This process is believed to transfer the talent and luck of the deceased to their living relatives.

In ancient times, the coffins were crafted from carved and hollowed wood. They were secured in place using projecting beams, making this an awe-inspiring testament to the enduring cultural and spiritual significance of the Igorot people.

These sacred burial sites continue to be an integral part of the Igorot identity, providing a glimpse into their rich cultural heritage.

Six mummies of a single family in one of the caves of Timbac, Kabayan, Benguet. Photo: alexisduclos

Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves

The Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves are a group of over 200 man-made burial caves located on a mountain in Kabayan, Benguet province, Philippines. These caves are special because they contain the remains of the Ibaloi people, who practiced mummification for more than 2,000 years.

You can reach the caves by taking a short walk from the village of Kabayan, but you'll need a local guide to go with you.

Inside the caves, you'll find wooden coffins with over 50 mummies in the largest cave. Some mummies are still dressed in traditional Ibaloi clothing.

For the Ibaloi people, these caves are a sacred place. They believe the mummies are the spirits of their ancestors. They come to the caves to pay their respects and ask for blessings.

The Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves are also a popular spot for tourists. People visit to see the well-preserved mummies and the beautiful natural surroundings. These caves are a reminder of the rich culture of the Ibaloi people and the Cordillera Mountains region.

In conclusion, the Cordillera region's sacred sites and burial grounds are not only a testament to the Igorot people's deep connection with their ancestors and the land but also a window into the rich cultural heritage of the Cordillera Mountains. These sites, whether ancient burial tombs, spiritually significant mountains, or the awe-inspiring hanging coffins, hold a unique place in the hearts of the Igorot people.

These sacred places serve as a reminder of the enduring cultural and spiritual significance of the Igorot people, reinforcing the importance of preserving their traditions for future generations. While these sites attract tourists seeking to explore the region's rich history and unique customs, they remain, above all, sacred to the indigenous communities who continue to pay their respects and seek blessings from their ancestors.

The Cordillera region's sacred sites are not just historical landmarks but living testaments to the enduring connection between the Igorot people, their ancestors, and the breathtaking landscape they call home.

Contemporary Influences and Preservation

Igorot funeral practices have encountered significant transformations due to modernization and the influence of Christianity. These contemporary factors have left an indelible mark on traditional customs and mourning traditions.

Modern Adaptations and Practices

In the modern era, some Igorot communities have adopted changes to their traditional practices. For instance, the construction of burial coffins may now involve the use of power tools alongside the traditional hand-carving methods. While some still manually craft coffins, others opt for ready-made alternatives. Additionally, cremation has become an alternative to the traditional burial process in some areas.

Economic Challenges

The cost associated with upholding traditional Igorot burial practices is another challenge. Many families find these customs financially burdensome, prompting them to seek more cost-effective alternatives. As a result, some have chosen to forego certain aspects of the traditional practices.

Preservation Efforts

However, various initiatives and organizations recognize the importance of preserving Igorot cultural heritage. They strive to document these practices while adapting to contemporary influences. Museums, cultural centers, and educational programs play a vital role in safeguarding and showcasing these traditions for future generations. While modernization and changing socio-economic landscapes have impacted Igorot funeral practices, preservation efforts aim to ensure that these customs remain an integral part of Igorot identity and heritage.

Conclusion

The Igorot people possess an undeniably rich culture, especially when it comes to their funeral customs. This exploration of their ancient traditions, from the sacredness of wakes to the significance of burial sites, sheds light on the enduring cultural and spiritual bonds that the Igorots maintain.

These customs, despite adapting to contemporary influences and facing financial challenges, transcend mere rituals. They represent living expressions of identity, spirituality, and history. The Igorot funeral practices are a testament to the enduring legacy of these indigenous communities, showcasing the diverse and culturally rich tapestry of the Cordillera region.

In conclusion, the Igorot people's funeral customs are not just traditions of the past, but a vibrant part of their present and a living testament to their unique culture.

Born Igorot, Die Igorot


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