Inside the Cordillera death ritual
Daytoy Ti Amianan
MANILA, Philippines – Seven elderly women in Sagada, Mt. Province, gather one night around a hut no larger than five square meters. Linked arms to shoulder, the women chant as they sway to its sing-song rhythm: “I taoli yo nan swerti kadakami, ya san an-ak yo.”
It is the night’s mantra sung in Kankanaey: “May you bring luck back to us and to your descendants.”
Inside the hut, all eyes focus on a figure occupying a spot of importance.
Florencio “Sumbad” Pecdasen, an elder of dap-ay Tukipa in the village of Demang, has been dead three days. On the third day of his death, he was dressed in indigenous garments befitting a kadangyan (nobility) and was propped on what locals call a sangadil (death chair).
On the night of the third day, the women sang dirges as the elder figureheads of Demang and Dag-dag villages chanted the baya-o (tribute to the dead).
The baya-o extolled the virtues of the dead and sought his blessings for the community and for those who shared resources and efforts to usher the passing of the dead back to the world of their departed ancestors.
“Sumbad was an industrious man,” the elders chanted. “For even in his old age he would take up hard chores including gathering firewood.”
Unfortunately, Sumbad’s industry triggered his decline. His village mates said he climbed a tree to cut some branches for firewood. He missed a step, fell and broke his back. He survived the fall but the man, at 75, was unable to walk again and died months later.
But in his prime as an elder of dap-ay Tukipa, Sumbad knew what he wanted, and declared this in no uncertain terms to his family and the dap-ay council leadership: When he dies, he wants to be propped up on a sangadil and buried in the ways of his father, the respected Lakay Pecdasen, and his ancestors—his coffin hanging on a ledge at the limestone cliffs of Bao-eng.
No one knows for sure how or when the practice of placing the dead on a sangadil started.
Even Esteban “Pollat” Bosaing, acknowledged repository of oral tradition in the community, can only quote versions from folktales.
He said in the olden days, the dead were merely left lying on the ground. By nightfall, when all were asleep, the dogs often sneak in to eat the corpse. Or, without knowing it, the dead might turn into a carabao or some other animal so people might fall ill, says the mammadto (soothsayer), if they butcher and eat it.
Sometimes the anito (ancestors) tasked to fetch the dead may think that the person was merely asleep seeing that it was only lying about, so they leave, unable to complete their task. This has prompted elders to decide on placing the dead on a chair to prevent these mishaps from happening.
The less dramatic but pragmatic version, according to Bosaing, has something to do with presentation. The dead can look better in traditional regalia if seated, rather than lying in a coffin.
Even if the person’s system has ceased to function, the person is not “dead” until declared so by the community.
In the case of Sumbad, it was three days after he breathed his last. Only when he was seated on a chair that the dirges and chants for the dead began.
Sumbad was strapped on an ordinary wooden chair, his thumbs and big toes bound together by a rope made of rattan and his jaw tied shut with a kubkuba or a soft bark used to weave g-strings before Ilocano traders introduced their inabel (woven cloth).
The design of his death garments indicates he was among the privileged in the community.
“Black cloth with seven stripes implies that he is among the kadangyan,” says Bosaing. The less privileged wear blue with no stripes.
However, with the required number of pigs to be butchered (21 and 18), it is difficult to distinguish the kadangyan from those who are not.
“The ritual takes place only when a person asks for it and if the family can afford the cost,” says Rey Fiar-od, an official in Barlig, Mt. Province.
However, even if the family is financially capable, the ritual cannot be performed if it does not own a takba or a ritual basket.
“To own a takba means you are part of the ritual and a culture bearer,” says photographer Tommy Hafalla. “Not to own one simply means you have turned your back from the old ways and embraced another set of beliefs.”
This other set of beliefs might be the Christian faith and the reason Sumbad’s daughter has expressed her reluctance to place her father on a death chair.
She was only prevailed upon by the rest of the clan who said it was her father’s wish that this ritual be performed.
Today the death ritual is at best a “compromise” between the Christianity that was introduced by western missionaries and local traditions and beliefs.
Thus, during Sumbad’s wake, the baya-o was performed as often as Christian hymns were sung.
In Sagada, there is a cemetery on a hill where Christian burials are performed, but overlooking the hill, a rock face is full with hanging coffins from traditional burials.
It seems, however, that Sumbad won out in the end. Wrapped in his burial shroud in fetal position, the village’s men, and sometimes women, carried him on their backs to his final destination in a practice called binatbato.
The community takes turns in carrying the body towards the limestone cliffs as to do so is considered good luck.
Gruesome as it may sound, the luck happens when body fluids of the dead are smeared on to the one who is carrying the corpse, but it will only occur if the fluids are not washed off for three days.
Bosaing says the belief is so strong that those who participate fight for the chance to carry the corpse.
Are these practices still relevant in this age? Without hesitation, Fiar-od says “yes.”
“The bottom line in the observance of these practices is unity and discipline. These values do not fade in time,” he says.
“So is the observance of tambo (sharing). The culture of sharing will ensure that the people and their practices will endure for generations to come,” says Hafalla.