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Igorot Traditional Funeral Practices and Burial Customs

The Igorot people of the Cordillera have an undeniably rich culture, especially when it comes to funeral practices and burial customs.

Igorot traditional funeral practices and burial customs
Igorot traditional funeral practices and burial customs

The funeral practices and burial customs of the Cordillera Igorots encompass a wide range of personal, cultural, and traditional beliefs and practices that they practice in connection with death, disgrace, and proper respect, interference, and remembrance of the dead.

These practices are widely shaped by the various religions and cultures that have entered the Philippines throughout its complex history.

Igorot funeral practices and burial customs

Paunawa of Manabo, Abra

For weeks, the people of Manabo, 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 Itneg of Abra also have a custom of burying their dead right under their houses.

Paunawa - Traditional Funeral Practice of Manabo, Abra
Paunawa - Traditional Funeral Practice of Manabo, Abra

Bangil ritual in Benguet Province

Common in Benguet province, a "bangil" ritual is performed by the elders on the eve of a funeral, which is a chanted narration of the biography of the deceased. During interment, the departed is directed towards heaven by hitting bamboo sticks together.

Baya-o in Mountain Province

The "bangil" ritual of Benguet is also held in Mountain Province but under another term, "baya-o". It is also a narration of the biography of the deceased but may include his wrong-doings.

"Baya-o", also called "Bayya-o" is a form of Eulogy in the form of singing. The person who usually makes Bayya-o tells a few stories about how the person in his life - the way they got to know that person. The individual performing the bayya-o begins to sing a story about the deceased person, and after a few stanzas, everyone accompanies him for the chorus.

Culture is evolving and people are trying to exclude the wrongdoings of the deceased in their "bay-o" in today's times.

Panag Apoy in Sagada, Mountain Province

Every first November, the people of Sagada gather in the cemetery to remember their deceased loved ones. But instead of lighting traditional candles, they use the woods of old pine trees locally called "saeng" or "saleng". A burning wood from old pine trees, to create fires in the graves.

Panag-apoy ritual in Sagada, Mountain Province | Dako Bagano, 2019
Panag-apoy ritual in Sagada, Mountain Province Dako Bagano, 2019

They call this old ritual "Panag-apoy", a Kankana-ey term meaning "to light a fire", a tradition that has long been practiced in Sagada, Mountain Province.

Bogwa in Ifugao

Bogwa is the practice of exhuming the bones of the dead, cleaning and rewrapping them after a year or more depending on necessity and returning them to the grave or lubuk.

It is considered one of the most expensive rituals of the Ifugao natives as animals have to be offered during the three days it is being performed.

But being a family responsibility to honor a deceased loved one, it is being done as the Ifugaos do not observe All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day like most Filipinos.

The Ifugaos believe bogwa is necessary so those left behind will prosper and live in peace with the spirits of their departed loved ones.

It is also the Ifugaos' way of showing love and valuing what their deceased loved ones have done for them.

'Mumbaki' (native shaman), elders and villagers in the community of Bayninan in Kiangan town, Ifugao province
'Mumbaki' (native shaman), elders and villagers in the community of Bayninan in Kiangan town, Ifugao province

During the first day of the three-day ritual, mumbakis and other tribal elders including gong beaters will perform the gohwat in the morning by taking out the remains from the gungat (traditional burial chamber) or urn, cleaning the bones, arranging them in proper position and wrapping them in traditional woven cloth called gamong before bringing them to a residence for bogwa.

The second day is called kadwa where immediate family members continue to prepare food and drink (rice wine) for visitors who attend the ritual, since the invitation for bogwa is open not only within the village but even outside the community.

At 3 p.m. in the afternoon of the katlu or third day of the ritual, the bones are brought back to the grave with gong accompaniment, with the skull positioned facing the opening of the gungat.

Animals like pigs are butchered every day of the bogwa, with some specific parts of the slaughtered animals given to relatives of the deceased as a sign of kinship, while the rest of the meat is cooked and served to the people joining the wake.

Mummification of Benguet

Of course, one of Igorot's most notable burial practices is the mummification process. Kabayan, Benguet, is well known for its antiquated centuries-old mummies buried inside the caves scattered around the villages in the town.

The Egyptians perfected mummification to preserve their Pharaoh kings and to ease their passage into the afterlife. If we think more deeply, do our Igorot ancestors also believe in the afterlife?

Kabayan Fire Mummies. Kabayan, Benguet
Kabayan Fire Mummies. Kabayan, Benguet

Since Apo Anno was of high status and a most important man in the village, he had to be mummified; mummification is a long process. Right after his last breath, they opened his mouth and forced him with a strong brine solution. They even used their mouths to pump the solution into his stomach.

Mummified Apo Anno
Mummified Apo Anno

Apo Anno is believed to be the first leader to be mummified in Benguet because of his reign marked by peace and prosperity in the 12th Century. His generation flourished and peopled many villages far and wide from Benguet to Ifugao and Vizcaya.

Sangadil in Benguet

For eight days, the natives of Benguet closed their dead bodies and then made them sit on a chair placed next to the main entrance of a house.

The arms and legs are tied to the sitting position. The reason a dead person sits is because when it dries, the person can be removed from their seat and reversed to the fetal position.

Sangadil: A Traditional Igorot Funeral, 1930s.
Sangadil: A Traditional Igorot Funeral, 1930s.

Sacred Grounds in the Cordilleras

Burial Tombs in Ifugao

Researchers say that the rocky method of building Ifugao rice terraces was also used in the construction of this hill in Mayoyao, Ifugao.

Apfo'or Burial Tomb of Mayoyao, Ifugao
Apfo'or Burial Tomb of Mayoyao, Ifugao

Bakun, Benguet Burial Grounds

It is an emerging natural attraction, this mountain in Bakun, Benguet, is well known as the home of the Kankanaey god, "Kabunian".

Parts of the stunning large rocky slopes of the mountain used to be tombs, hence the presence of box coffins and human bones. Its rocky top is not ideal for rock climbers, and mountain trekkers as a challenging destination and campsite.

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

Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Mountain Province

In Sagada, Mountain Province, the ancient burial tradition of hanging coffins from mountain ravines is still practiced by some. The purpose of suspending the coffin from the rocks on the mountain was to bring the deceased closer to heaven.

The coffins hanging in the Echo Valley in Sagada, are largely reserved for the elderly Igorot with families, as it is believed that the younger generations will benefit spiritually from the success of the burial. Family members may also be asked to carry the corpse to its waiting coffin at the edge of the ravine to be contaminated with body fluids that are thought to contain the talent and luck of their deceased relative.

If you ask a "ySagada" (an individual from Sagada, Mountain Province), why they are doing this tradition, they will just tell you that the main reason is for "safe keeping". Yes, to keep coffins away from animals and other destructive agents.

The Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Mountain Province
The Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Mountain Province

In ancient times, coffins were made of carving and hollow wood. They hang in place by using projecting beams.

Closing the coffin

The Igorot people have an undeniably rich culture, especially when it comes to funeral customs. It is important for an Igorot or as a person to be able to discover, learn and understand the ways of the past.

If we think about rejecting our history - and like our funeral customs, they will eventually be buried.

Death is inevitable and I have a few questions.

  • How meaningful is your life?
  • Would you prefer a traditional funeral?

I honestly think that this article is inaccurate and incomplete due to the complexity of Igorot culture. What else did I miss?

Born Igorot, Die Igorot

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