Hanging out in Sagada

If you are reading this, then you are blissfully unaware of what's creeping up behind you...

It's that time of year again, the nights are drawing in, teenagers are stocking up on eggs and clown masks, and pumpkin farmers are hurriedly stashing away their recent windfalls to see them through another year of supermarket squash frugality - yes it's Halloween, that celebration of all things glucose and gruesome.  Whether you're a cynic who believes that Halloween is just the capitalist promotion of yet another arbitrary holiday, elaborately designed to separate you from your cash in exchange for a number of gaudy plastic decorations and costumes, or an avid trick-or-treat-er who has eaten too many sweets, come the 1st November (or All Hallows Day if you prefer - the eve of which gives Halloween its suffix) you may well find yourself feeling a little bit ill.

 Piles of stone coffins at the entrance to one of Sagada's many caves...

Piles of stone coffins at the entrance to one of Sagada's many caves...

Not so for those celebrating All Hallows Day in Sagada, a small town in the mountains of Northern Luzon - the largest of the many islands which make up the Philippines.  Although famous for its limestone geology and cool mountain climate, it's Sagada's indigenous culture, and in particular the slightly morbid traditional burial ceremony, only undertaken in a handful of places in the world, which attracts tourists and horror fans alike to brave the seemingly endless switchbacks of the mountain road to discover its mysteries.

If you are a person of note in certain indigenous cultures of Northern Luzon, then upon your death you might find yourself in an ornately carved wooden or stone coffin - this coffin might then find its way into a cave or if you're really lucky or important, your coffin might be precariously suspended on one of the many sheer cliffs which abound in the mountains surrounding Sagada.  Exploring the mountain passes around the town you can't help but see these gravity defying coffins high up on the cliffs, traditionally thought to get you closer to the creator (and also to keep your body away from hungry wild animals).  Unfortunately the spindly wooden poles hammered into the cliffs to support the coffins, don't always function as planned, and as such, the bottom of these cliff faces can be quite morbid affairs with piles of old stone coffins barely containing their skeletal bounty. 

A fittingly spooky place then to find myself on Halloween for a quite unexpected tradition...

 The gravity deifying hanging coffins adorn the limestone cliffs that surround Sagada...

The gravity deifying hanging coffins adorn the limestone cliffs that surround Sagada...

I hadn't planned to be in Sagada during the All Hallow's Day celebrations; in fact I hadn't planned to head there at all, but after failing to swim in a waterfall in Batad, and hearing about the enticing Crystal Caves, and not being one to turn down a geographical opportunity, my interested was sufficiently peaked, and after saying goodbye to Banaue, I flagged down the first of many jeepneys which would eventually take me north through the rural hub of Bontoc, and zig-zagging up into the cool mountain clouds which shrouded this mysterious place.    

A day spent spelunking, and exploring the beautiful mountain topography, with accompanying waterfalls, was enough to realise that something big was unfolding.  There was a buzz in the town, and the typically sleepy surrounding villages were full of activity, people were preparing food, making decorations, and dancing to music blaring out of barely functioning speakers.  As I walked back towards Sagada from the wonderfully refreshing "Little Falls", I joined dozens of groups of people all heading from the surrounding hills in the same direction - towards the larger than usual graveyard on the edge of town. 

 The lush but mysterious mountain town of Sagada...

The lush but mysterious mountain town of Sagada...

Talk about being in the right place at the right time, as we climbed the final hill into Sagada I found myself in the middle of a festival - hundreds of people were congregating on the graveyard, there was music, people were singing, and whole families had dressed up for the occasion.  I was completely swept up in a cacophony of people and slightly uncomfortably wandered into the graveyard.  Up until this point, my experiences of graveyards had thankfully been limited to short amounts of quiet reflection at my grandfathers grave, but the scene before me couldn't have been more different.  Each year on the 1st November, the people of Sagada and the surrounding villages, in a brilliant combination of Christianity and indigenous beliefs, go to the town's cemetery and honour their dead - not with a solemn bowed head and a quiet prayer, but with a full on party - whole families come out and sit on their ancestor's graves to make jokes, play music, eat picnics and drink long into the early hours - it is a way for the family to reconnect with loved ones they have lost, and ensure that their memory stays as a happy part of their family.  Far from a morbid affair, this tradition is based in love and respect, and is something which happens all over the Philippines - something which took my British sensibilities a little while to get used to.

 Burning graves at sunset...definitely not scary...

Burning graves at sunset...definitely not scary...

In a tradition unique to Sagada, in addition to the picnics, drinking, and partying, the Sagadans also light bonfires and candles all over the cemetery to literally 'warm the dead'.  It's a real attraction, to the point where several local TV crews had come to film the spectacle of hundreds of fires being lit as the sun set, filling the cemetery with the sweet smell of wood smoke, and lending it a suitably eerie hazy red hue.  Seeing it for real was a surreal experience, it was both disturbing, and beautiful at the same time.  With the onset of night, the party really got started, and in true Filipino style I was invited by several families to join them for food and drinks, and despite my initial reservations, I began to really respect and enjoy the attitude they showed towards their dead - on the face of it, many of us may consider dancing on top of someones grave disrespectful, but when you understand how this allows for the dead to remain as part of the family, I believe this attitude can be a very healthy one; I believe it dispels lots of the negative connotations associated with death/graveyards etc. and I really began to enjoy myself.  However, despite this new way of thinking, I had to concede that there was something about hundreds of fires burning in a graveyard late at night, which alludes to the crescendo of a particularly sinister horror movie, and it remained a little unnerving.  Fortunately, it's difficult to feel too on edge when the family next to you keeps feeding you snacks and beer, and the only horror moment came when I was asked to try a little karaoke...a truly terrifying end to a memorable Halloween celebration.

 The whole family taking part in the graveyard party atmosphere...

The whole family taking part in the graveyard party atmosphere...

So this year, once you've eaten all your sweets, thrown away your fake blood spattered costume, and turned your lovingly carved pumpkin into soup, why not take a moment to grab a bite to eat, light a fire (a candle will do) and send some warmth to your ancestors - even if they're not currently hanging off the edge of a limestone cliff in a little mountain town in the north of the Philippines.

 Fires burn long into the night continuing to 'warm the dead'...

Fires burn long into the night continuing to 'warm the dead'...

© Andy Browning 2016