Sagada, Mountain Province, the Philippines
March 1, 2015
That indie romcom That Thing Called Tadhana – Tagalog for destiny – inspired me to trek the mountains of Sagada (sorry, not sorry to the recent “spare Sagada” online movement). As our group emerged from the rock art-adorned Latang Underground River, the guide pointed at a vertical wall of limestone we would be scaling up. Wooden coffins protruded out of niches seemingly beyond reach from any direction. It left to the imagination how the Applai tribe had hauled unwieldy log coffins up steep rock faces to inter them into narrow crevices.
We died and went to heaven. So to speak. The hike up the craggy trail was a killer. Our quads were not used to stretching across boulders, our glutes to sliding down ravines. After the longest half an hour, we were at the shadow of the famous hanging coffins. These hollow logs, called kuong, defied gravity and vied with stalactites for space on the rock face. Some had been suspended there for centuries, others only a couple of years.
It was an unusual resting place for the dead. Not underground but above ground. This way, our guide explained, the dead were closer to heaven. Still breathless from the arduous hike from Echo Valley, we certainly felt the proximity to the firmament.
Only elders from prominent families were interred in these coffins, as they were believed to watch over their families, perhaps literally, in the afterlife. The corpses were said to be fitted into the coffins in fetal position. Their knees had already been bent as they were made to sit on a chair, the sangadil which were sometimes hung beside the coffin, during the pre-burial ritual. I imagined these hanging death chairs were truly a vantage point from whence the departed could keep watch over the living.
Cliff and cave burials had been practiced by mountain tribes in Sagada for about 2,000 years. Hanging coffins were scattered throughout this part of the Cordilleras.
With feet heavy and shoulders collapsed like the walking dead, we clambered out of the wilderness into a clearing. It was another place of death, a more familiar kind of cemetery. White and grey headstones of Calvary Cemetery dotted the gentle slopes of Calvary Hill fringed by pine trees.
Even from afar, a freshly painted headstone stood out. Obviously a recent addition to the silent community. It was the grave of one of 44 police officers massacred in Mindanao just a month before. Hailed as heroes, the Fallen 44 gave their lives in exchange of one – a Malaysian terrorist allegedly coddled by rebel groups down south.
A number of these Special Action Forces was from the Cordlilleras, a region known for the bravery of its people, one of whom was PO3 Noel Golocan. During the ambush, he reportedly sacrificed his own life for a junior officer being shot at from all directions. PO3 Golocan emerged from his cover to take the volley of bullets. He staggered up repeatedly until the rebels finished him off. The junior officer lived to tell of his colleague’s heroism. I paused for a moment of silence to honor his legacy of courage and loyalty to duty, to the state, to his fellow Filipino.
If anyone deserved a seat in the heavens, it was this hero.
We walked on until the Anglican Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the oldest in the region, came into view. The Cordillera Autonomous Region was unique for being predominantly Protestant in this Catholic country. The sight was a relief as it meant we had reached town.
Later that day, I caught a glimpse of the stone church from my window at Davey’s Inn and Restaurant. Only then it hit me: the site of the hanging coffins just beyond the back of the church was a leisurely walk from our digs! We didn’t have to suffer through, yet also amazed by, that steep and craggy terrain.
Such was death. It could be a long and strenuous journey before it reached the heavenly realm. Or it could just be around the corner, unexpectedly. Either way, it inevitably led to that thing called destiny – the final destination. The movie was spot on, after all.