people carrying the casket of a person who died in a landslide in the Philippines

Death rituals help restless spirits find peace in the Philippines

Indigenous groups in the remote highlands respond to a deadly typhoon by honoring their ancestors.

Among the victims of a landslide triggered by Typhoon Mangkhut was 30-year-old Alquane Buocan. Grieving brothers and cousins shouldered his coffin up a steep path to his family's homeplace.
Photograph by Carlo Gabuco, National Geographic

When Typhoon Mangkhut made landfall in the Philippines on September 14, 2018, it struck with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. Winds up to 170 miles an hour and torrential rain battered the islands, killing more than 120 people and leaving many victims buried under landslides. Among them was 36-year-old Joy Tudo, a gold miner and member of the Ifugao, a group native to the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines.

As the typhoon bore down on the mining town of Itogon, Tudo and some 80 others took shelter in a pair of bunkhouses at the mouth of a gold mine they called Zero-Seventy. Riding out the storm with Tudo were her cousin Jasmin Banawol, Jasmin's husband—Edwin, the pastor of an evangelical Christian church in the mining encampment—and their four children, ages 18, 16, six, and two.

After hours of drenching rain, the steep slope above Zero-Seventy gave way. The massive landslide buried the bunkhouse, and everyone in it, under 20 feet of sodden earth and uprooted trees.

When news of the disaster reached Tudo’s home village of Umalbong, two dozen of her Ifugao kin squeezed into two trucks and drove eight hours over twisting mountain roads to the site of the landslide. When they arrived, they began digging into the mountain of mud with their bare hands, toiling alongside hundreds of rescue workers and police officers. (See the devastation left by Typhoon Mangkhut.)

They dug for days, even after the stench of decomposing bodies became overpowering. When the national government ordered them to leave because of health concerns, they refused.

“We can’t move on unless we see her,” Tudo’s aunt, Nancy Dinamiling, said. “Unless we see her corpse, we can’t believe it’s true.”

Back in Umalbong, a group of Tudo’s cousins held a ceremony that blended Roman Catholic prayer with Ifugao ritual. Gathering in a circle, they ritually slaughtered a pig and prayed that Tudo’s spirit would help searchers find her body. On the seventh day of prayers, Tudo spoke to her cousins through a seer, a woman who served as a conduit between the living and the dead. (Warning: What follows may be disturbing to some readers.)

Please find me, Tudo implored her cousins. I’m hanging on a post; I’m missing a foot. My cousin doesn’t have a head. I screamed for my mother. I died slowly. I started praying the Our Father. Before I finished, I was taken.

The next day at the landslide site, a backhoe operator dug into the soft earth and pulled up a pink blanket that had belonged to Jasmin Banawol, the pastor’s wife and Tudo’s cousin. Family members dug out her body. As foretold in the ritual, she had been beheaded by the force of the landslide. A few days later, they uncovered Tudo’s corpse.

Dead among the living

Most of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera Mountains have traded their traditional loincloths and wraps for jeans, polo shirts, and rubber slides, and many have converted to Catholicism or evangelical Christianity. But when a loved one or member of their kin group dies, they often turn to rituals handed down from their ancestors.

“Many people feel that what works is more important than the origin of these practices,” says Nestor Castro, an anthropologist at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. Different rituals address different needs, including helping mourners cope with grief and cleansing haunting memories from the minds of survivors and rescue workers. “This is our psychological therapy,” says Dax Godio, a member of the Ibaloy-Kalanguya tribe.

But above all, the death rituals are meant to ensure that the spirits of the deceased receive the attention and care they require. In the cultures of the Cordillera, Castro explains, “once you die, that’s not the end. You continue to be part of the community. You continue to be part of the kin group.” (Learn about a culture where the living and the dead share the same home.)

If forgotten or mistreated, the dead turn against the people who are meant to take care of them. They haunt children, cause illness, and commit other mischief. But if the dead are honored and remembered, they protect the living and prevent tragedy.

Clash of cultures

Above the landslide site in Itogon, the national government set up a makeshift center for processing the dead. Inside, a clerk pounded out death certificates on a decades-old typewriter as anxious relatives, seated on plastic chairs, awaited news of their loved ones' fate.

Behind the building, a forensics team from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had improvised an autopsy theater under tents and out on the grass. Technicians dressed in white hazmat suits, latex gloves, and surgical masks performed their own brand of death rituals.

A male victim recovered the night before, after 10 days buried in the mud, lay on a metal table. Technicians cleaned the cadaver and documented his few possessions: a clump of damp clothes and a 20-peso bill, which they folded, labeled, and tucked into a plastic bag. They covered the corpse in quicklime to slow decomposition and reduce the odor.

For the Ifugao, scientific procedures and international health standards can feel like abstractions from another belief system being imposed on their own. The forensic team urged victims’ relatives to grant permission for bone and tissue samples to be taken for DNA identification. But the thought of leaving any part of a loved one behind with the government was unsettling and contrary to Ifugao traditions.

One family, growing impatient with waiting for a relative’s body to be released, signed a handwritten waiver stating that because of their cultural beliefs, they would not allow the government to take DNA samples, and would not hold officials liable for misidentification. The cadaver was released, despite the objections of medical personnel. (Discover whether DNA tests are 100% accurate.)

“The supposedly identified body,” Ronald Bandonill, a medical examiner with the NBI, said pointedly as he flipped through the cadaver’s chart. “I’m not really comfortable with it, but what can I do?” To the forensics team, the cadaver was known as CAR-18-45. To his family, he was beloved Alquane, only 30 years old when he died in the landslide.

Alquane Buocan’s body arrived in his home village of Uhaj, nine hours from Itogon, before dawn. His brothers lifted his casket onto their shoulders and carried it up the hill to a clearing in front of his mother’s simple wood-and-thatch home. To give thanks that Alquane had come home, and to inform their ancestors of his death, his family immediately slaughtered a pig.

The offering was accepted. In the brightening dawn, a wisp of cloud formed above the valley where many of the miners came from. It was a sign from the spirits, mourners said, acknowledging their deaths.

Alquane’s wake would last three days, his clan gathered at the family home, eating together and performing rituals led by Alquane’s brother Ryan. At 27, Ryan is the youngest tribal priest, or mumbaki, among the Ifugao. He embraced the calling out of concern that all the other mumbaki are advanced in age. “Once they’re gone, what’s going to happen to our culture?” he says. “It will all turn into the Christian religion, and our culture will disappear.”

The morning after Alquane's body arrived, Ryan sat in a circle with the elderly mumbaki, chanting in the Ifugao Tuwali language. At his feet was a bowl of rice wine, along with some young chickens. With a chick cupped in his hands, Ryan pleaded with the ancestors not to let a tragedy like the landslide happen again. He slit the chicken’s throat and let the blood drip into a bowl. Then he cut open the bird’s body and looked at its liver. If it was white, it would mean the ancestors were appeased and would answer his prayer. The white liver didn’t appear until Ryan had offered up 16 chickens.

The day Alquane was buried, about a hundred members of his clan climbed up the mountain and watched as his brothers opened his casket and tucked his body into a red and black Ifugao death blanket for his final journey to the afterlife. (See how a family in New Orleans mourns the loss of a teenager.)

Ryan performed a chanting ritual to ensure that none of the souls of the living would be left at Alquane’s grave. Members of the clan laid out a tempting feast of pork and rice and called out the names of a hundred ancestors, inviting them to come and eat and then take Alquane with them to their world.

The final ritual called the souls of the living, disoriented by the pain of Alquane’s death, back into their bodies so they could return to their lives.

Just over the mountain in Umalbong, Joy Tudo’s body lay in a casket outside her parents’ home, surrounded by members of her clan who had come to bid her goodbye. Next to her coffin, her brothers and uncles were sawing pine planks, mixing cement, and measuring rebar. They were building a tomb so her spirit could dwell 20 feet from her family.

As the sun was setting, a woman too old for anyone to know her age crouched in front of Tudo's coffin. Hiding her face in her hands, she wept out a ngulngul—a long, rhythmic song of sorrow whose words have been forgotten by everyone except the very old. The crowd fell into whispers, then silence as her song saturated the air with sadness.

Last December in Itogon, rescue workers gathered for a final ritual. Many had pulled dozens of bodies from the landslide. Priests from the Ibaloi, Kankanai, and Kalanguya tribes slaughtered pigs and led tribal prayers.

“The dau-es is a cleansing, for all the terrible things that happened here because of that storm,” said one of the elders. “This is beautiful. The sun will rise again, and we will be in harmony. We will be able to return to our lives because of what we are doing now.”

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