Hanging Coffins: Burial in the Sky

Hanging Coffins: Burial in the Sky

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Doing research for my last blogpost about the Madagascarian custom of dancing with corpses I found another touching ritual that was too good not to share. Nailed among the cliffs in various parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, and China you can find solemn effigies of early Eastern culture. For some ethnic communities this centuries old practice has survived and involves suspending wooden coffins hundreds of feet in the air.

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In areas where hanging coffins have been discovered but the local population is no longer practicing the custom, exact reasons for the bizarre tradition are scarce. For native people who have maintained their heritage the process is thought to prolong decomposition and also prevents rivals or animals from stealing off with bones.

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In preparation for the ceremony the cadaver usually undergoes a smoking process to stave off rot. A funeral is then given at home while the corpse is blanketed and seated in a special death chair. After a period of mourning a celebratory procession is held. Family members sometimes try to acquire samples of the loved one’s blood for the purpose of rubbing it into their skin which is thought to absorb the spirit. The consecration concludes with remains being shuttled vertically to coffins suspended in the rocks.

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Sadly, the tradition itself is passing away. Younger members of such practicing ethnic groups have adopted more Christianized funerals and many of the ancient sites are in danger of falling down. There are very few resources devoted to preserving the sites. Although, recent efforts by preservationists have seen more governmental funding and research being devoted to the cause.

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What’s fascinating is that these burial sites are not always easy to locate. As you can see from the establishing shot regions in which memorials have been discovered are extremely mountainous and difficult to traverse. Coffins are often hidden within crags or lined along crevices invisible from the ground.

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This CNN Travel video describes one hanging coffin enthusiast who travels by boat to some pretty remote locations. The article concludes by stating that new sites are still being discovered and that experts remain puzzled by the logistics of dragging heavy remains up hundreds of feet. I know I’d be damn grateful if my friends and family took the effort to drag me up the side of the mountain to be buried with the clouds.

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