Covid-19 recalls pre-colonial funeral practices

With a death from Covid-19 in the family, the unthinkable of Filipino life has happened. No waking up, not even a last look and a last goodbye. Cremation must be performed within 12 hours of death. Only one urn is given to the family. This is the reality of the pandemic among us.

Today’s funeral urn is a reminder that thousands of years ago we buried our dead in terracotta jars and other vessels. Caves and rock shelters provided this sacred space for burials.

A number of archaeological sites across the country have revealed the primary and secondary burial traditions of ancient Filipinos and their views on the afterlife.

The first burials

So far, the first burial in the Southeast Asian region has been recorded at Ille Cave, Palawan, a burial site that included skinning, dismemberment, broken bones, cremation and the burial directly dated to 9,000 years ago.

The oldest known flexed burials (involving the flexing of the arms or legs) are those at Bubog Cave on Ilin Island, Mindoro dated 5,000 years ago, and Duyong Cave and Shelter Sa’gung rock in Palawan, dated 4,500 to 5,000 years ago.

Burial of the sarcophagus: The most familiar burial position, lying on your back, is seen in the millennial tradition of sarcophagus burials in Mulanay, Quezon and in the settlement burial sites of San Remigio, Cebu. A sarcophagus is a funerary vase in the shape of a stone box and placed above the ground.

About fifteen prehistoric stone sarcophagi carved out of limestone were found at Mount Kamhantik in Mulanay. Rectangular in shape and without a lid, each sarcophagus contained another box-shaped or circular container. The stone carving method is similar to some Indonesian sites in Bali, North Sumatra or East Kalimantan.

Secondary limestone burial jars of various sizes, shapes and decorations were also found on the Kulaman Plateau, Sultan Kudarat, in the 1960s.

Maitum mortuary pottery: An exceptional collection of secondary funerary jars, in human and non-human forms, was discovered in the cave of Ayub, Maitum, Saranggani. The lids are shaped like human heads; the bodies of the pots have arms and hands as well as breasts or genitals. Body adornments include distended earlobes, bracelets, arm rings, and headbands. Their distinct faces are like portraits of individuals, expressing a range of emotions.

Maitum mortuary pottery.  Image courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines.

Two jars, the most complete among the jars recovered in situ are called Jar 21 and the quadrangle jar. Jar 21 represents a young boy with his genitals; the quadrilateral jar has four horizontal ear horns and a red painted body with scrolls.

Bacon jar burials: In the 1970s, archaeologists from the University of Siliman and the University of San Carlos had excavated burial sites in Magsuhot, Bacong, Negros Oriental. Primary burial jars have been found with the entire body of the deceased in a flexed or fetal or dismembered position, dated to 2100-1500 years ago.

Bacong funeral vessels.  Image courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines.

Magsuhot has a rich source of clay for pottery, and a striking feature of its burial practice is the large quantity of clay pots, between 70 and 100 pieces that accompany each grave.

Large pots, round or rectangular, feature a variety of designs that include fertility symbols or phallic shapes. A stylized representation of a rooster’s head has been found in some funeral jars; a stick-shaped object with a rooster’s head has been recovered which may be a symbol of prestige or power.

Traces of chicken and pork offerings at the bottom of the jar under the human remains were also found.

Boat-shaped burials: Another unique mortuary practice is the boat-shaped burial markers in Batanes, discovered in 1994. The stones are arranged to represent the traditional boat or tataya, with the bow and stern clearly visible. The deceased is buried under the mound on a bed of limestone.

Burial stone markers in the shape of a boat, Batanes.  Courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines.

Interestingly, the present-day Ivatan people, who have a strong tradition of oral history and legends, have no account of this practice; there are also no accounts written in Spanish. Its origins are still a mystery.

At Banton, Romblon, the wooden coffins, excavated in the early 1960s, are hollowed out logs of hardwood molave, shaped into a boat with a triangular cover, and usually carved with reptilian patterns of snake, lizard, or rock. crocodile. Artificially deformed skulls have also been found with flattened foreheads on the front and back, with gold ornaments at its base.

Similar burial practices have been unearthed in Marinduque, Bohol, Palawan and Masbate.

Prehistoric world view

The variety of prehistoric mortuary vessels found in the country reflects complex belief systems, burial practices, and a worldview long before 1521.

Mortuary vessels from Filipino archaeological sites.  Image courtesy of the National Museum of the Philippines.

The ancient maritime culture of the archipelago is reflected in the belief that the souls of the dead become ancestors in the afterlife and are associated with boat coffins, reptile motifs, and the position of coffins in caves making facing the sea. It is believed that such types of receptacles facilitate the transition to the afterlife.

In many societies in Southeast Asia, boats and maritime themes are part of everyday life. It is not surprising that these themes are linked to death and death in everyday life.


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