When we reach the entrance of the Echo Valley to see the hanging coffins, we learn that it is closed for the day, because of a funeral. A fitting reason to postpone our visit to this curious part of Luzon. Instead, we walk the main street of Sagada towards the south, and see a limestone rock formation where we already spot several hanging coffins. When we look more carefully, we even see a skull on one of them - we will learn later why this is so. Continuing south, we come to the trailhead for the Lumiang burial cave, where a lady is kind enough to find a required guide to take us down a couple of minutes to a dark cave. Here, behind a fence, we find tens of wooden coffins, some hundreds of years old, stacked against the damp wall. The guide tells us that the top of the coffins are decorated with carved lizards (symbol of longevity) but unfortunately, it is not possible to see that. Lumiang burial cave is also the starting point of the Cave Connection spelunking adventure, which ends at the Sumaguing Cave to the south - we do not have the time to do that one.
The next day, after a hike up the Kiltepan Peak where I see the sun rise through the clouds, which then block my view of the rice paddies below, we again walk up to the entrance of the Echo Valley. One of the ladies at the office joins us as a guide, which now is compulsory, and from the beginning, turns out to be not only very friendly, but also knowledgeable about the traditions and practices of the hanging coffins. We pass through a cemetery, where we find old and recent tombs. Christianity has introduced the practice of burying coffins in the earth, in a society where the dead were treated differently. As we continue to walk the trail that leads down into a valley, the kind woman tells us how people still choose to be buried in coffins in nature. It turns out that there are different locations for people who died of natural causes and those who had a different end.
She tells us how people must sacrifice pigs and chicken to be buried in the hanging coffins of Sagada. That the reason to be buried on the face of limestone cliffs, is that the spirit is then free to float around, contrary to be buried under the soil. They are closer to heaven, and closer to ancestral spirits. On a practical note: it prevents wild animals to have a bite at the corpses. We see several cliffs where coffins are hanging, and then arrive at the end of the trail, with the biggest collection of coffins. Some have wooden chairs hanging next to them, in which the deceased were seated after their demise and before they were put into the coffin. Some of the coffins are much smaller: originally, the local Igorot people buried their dead in a fetal position for which they had to break their bones. Under the influence of Christianity, it became accepted to put corpses in full-length coffins. We now also learn why guides are mandatory: some people have raided the coffins, and taken bones out. This is why we saw a skull the day before. Fences have been constructed, and guides are put in place to protect possible wrongdoings. While our guide tells the story quietly, we are baffled by it. It turns out that our guide has an uncle who was buried in a nearby, small cave, and she takes us to see it. On our way back to Sagada, we cannot resist the temptation to do rock climbing on the limestone cliffs. These same climbers probably help in getting the coffins up on the cliffs, too.
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