Tribal Burial Traditions in Mindanao

Burial traditions in Mindanao a showcase of rich culture In death as in life, the burial traditions of the peoples and cultures of Mindanao are a showcase of the richness and the diversity of the island’s way of life. From the lush, green hinterland villages of the Mamanuas in Surigao del Sur to the blue seas hugging the shores of the Tausug land in Sulu, the burial traditions of these tribal groups vary in texture, color, values and meanings.

In past centuries, for the Manobos living in the hinterland areas straddling the places now known as Davao City, Davao del Sur, Bukidnon and North Cotabato, the dead were either laid on a platform built beside a tree, or wrapped in a mat and bamboo slats and hung up a tree. After the funeral, the relatives of the deceased abandon their dwellings and clearing. E. Arsenio Manuel, a University of the Philippines anthropology professor who conducted ethnographic studies of the Manobos in the 1960s, noted in his book “Manuvu Social Organization” that the tribe’s funeral practices only reflect their semi-sedentary way of life. But Manuel said that in the 20th century, as the United States colonial government introduced the abaca plantation system, the Manobos abandoned the practice of “tree burial” and shifted to burying their dead under their houses. He said with the new burial practice, the Manobos no longer abandoned their dwellings and continued with the cultivation of their clearings. Wakes among the Ata-Manobos, the tribe occupying the forest areas straddling parts of Davao City and the towns of Talaingod and Kapalong in Davao del Norte, are the only occasion where antuk (riddles) are taught by the elders to the young people. Edmund Industan of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City, wrote in his article, “Education Among the Ata-Manobo” in Gimba magazine that the tribe believes that teaching antuks in occasions other than the wake would lead to misfortunes or bring bad luck to the entire community. “If someone want to learn the antuks, he should attend any funeral wake,” Industan noted. In an Ata-Manobo wake, a widowed husband usually lies beside his deceased wife while relatives and friends sit around them. Some pass the time telling the riddles while others chant, according to an ethnographic account in the 1995 Gimba Magazine. During the wake chanting (uwahingan), singing, dancing, playing instruments (tagungguan) are conducted to alleviated the pervading grief.

In the spirit world of the T’boli, one of Mindanao’s most colorful tribes living around Lake Sebu, a person is believed to be a “composite of body and spirit,” notes an ethnographic account written by Dr. Erlinda Burton, executive director of the Research Institute on Mindanao Cultures in Xavier University. Burton, in her article “T’boli, A Mini-Ethnography” originally published in Gimba Magazine, said the T’boli believes that the spirit leaves the body when it is asleep and returns to awake it. Death happens when the spirit leaves the body permanently, or is taken away by an evil spirit called busao, Burton wrote. The body is laid on a boat-shaped wooden coffin tightly sealed with a tree resin to prevent the odor of the decomposition process. A T’boli wake may last from a week to five months but if the dead is highly respected by the community, his or her wake may last for a year. At the end of the wake, the wooden coffin will be placed over a fire but the fluid that oozes through the burning wood is collected and used as sauce for their sweet potato meals. “In this manner, they believe the desirable qualities of the deceased will pass on to them,” Burton wrote. Burton also noted that T’bolis have no specific burial ground so they bury the dead anywhere. But the interment is done only at night and that after the burial, the community partakes of a feast and leaves portions of the food in the grave. After the feast, the dead’s possessions are destroyed. After the burial, the mourners perform rituals to cleanse and rid themselves of evil spirits. The mourners jump over two swords fixed on the ground and later purify themselves in the river or any body of water, Burton said.

The Mamanuas in Surigao del Norte believe in the existence of two souls — one free to wander at will in the realm of dreams and in the unconscious; the other leaving the body upon death but venturing into unclear directions. Lovenia Parcon Naces in “The Mamanuas,” an article also published in Gima, noted that the spiritual beliefs of the Mamanuas explain why they leave their settlement whenever a member of the community dies. She said the Mamanuas fear that the spirit of the dead may return to harm them. Naces, who based her short ethnographic piece on the book The Culture of the Mamanua of Dr. Marcelino Maceda of the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, said the tribe buries the dead on the same day the person dies. They wrap the body in palm leaves or in a mat and place it in a coffin. The dead is buried either in a standing or sitting position. In the past, they also practiced platform burial mainly for the chief or the warriors of the tribe. In recent times, as soon as the grave is covered with soil, relatives of the deceased leave fire, water, and food for the dead. They then mourn their dead for nine days, and offer prayers for the repose of the dead’s soul. Among the Mamanuas living along the Lianga and Angdanan River in Surigao del Norte, the relatives of the dead return to the burial site after some time to exhume the larger bones and the skull of the dead for medicinal purposes. Naces also wrote that the Mamanuas believe that the land of the dead lies to the west of their ancestral areas, particularly in the mountain ranges of Diwata spanning the provinces of Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur and Compostela Valley. The Mamanuas also believe that a forest of durian fruit trees or an island rich in fruits also attracts the dead.

The Tausugs, or the people of the current, in Sulu are identified distinctly from other ethnic groups in the country by their festivals and ceremonies for the dead, Tausug scholar Juanito Alli Bruno wrote in his book, “The Social World of the Tausugs.” Bruno, then acting president of the Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City, noted that since the Tausugs are basically Muslims, they observe the Sunna which he describes as “the rigid conduct of Islam.” He said that there are four requirements to be performed on the dead: the Sutchihun, to bathe and cleanse the corpse; Saputun, wrapping the body in a shroud; Sambayanganun, performing the obligatory prayer of the dead; and the Hikubul, to bury him. Bruno wrote that a Tausug grave is dug following a north-to-south direction and measures six to nine feet. At this depth, a chamber of about two feet wide, which the Tausug calls the paliyangan, is dug on its west side. Bruno said a religious man would lower himself into such a hallow and say the tulkin or the prayer for the dead. Tausugs believe that such a practice drives evil spirits away and cleanses the final resting place of the dead. Bruno said the paliyangan is sealed with slabs which the Tausug refer to as the ding ding hali, literally meaning “wall of rest.” The funeral ends with the recitation of prayers led by a religious man or an imam if one is around.

For the Badjao, the body of the dead person is laid at the center, parallel to the sacred side wall, of the floating hut, called Umboh. This position ‘removes’ the death from the opposite orientation of the living (see ‘Celebration with the Sun’, of Bruno Bottignolo, pag. 236-248). During the wake there are homages to the dead, mostly food. The usual ‘Song of the Dead’ evokes a custom widespread among the Muslims. It is repeated continuously. The funeral preparation begin with the mesured cutting of the bandages for wrapping the dead body. These, with cords, are washed in fresh water. The bath of the body is done by the imam who will wash it starting from the hands. All the orificies of the body are carefully cleaned. After the bath the dead person is  dressed and place on the floor, above three or four dry and decorated tepoh. The hands covered with a white linen. The bandage is done by the imam who takes a corner of a sheet near the a shoulder and pulls it over across the body to the waist. In the middle of the cerimony the imam stops the process of bandaging for the final salute with prayers. Then when the dead person is enclosed in a cocoon a batik is spread over as decoration. The burial must be done inside the 24 hours after the death. At the cemetery the imam enter first. The place is full of spirits which must be calmed down. With incense, he prays at the four  corners of the grave.  Badjao graves are not very deep, less than a meter. On the grave, above the head, is placed a special oblonged stone called ‘sundok’. After the wake done in the hut of the death person, the imam will take the spirit to the tomb and released on the ‘sundok’. As time goes by, the stone will become the very icon of the spirit of the dead person.

In his history of Mindanao and Sulu, published in 1667, Father Francisco Combes calls the Subanu the “fourth nation of Mindanao” and refers to them as the inhabitants of the rivers, to which they owe their name, as the radical suba is the “word used by the nations (tribes) of Mindanaofor river. Lieut.Col. John Parkinlay (1913) in his Subanen Burial Customs tells that when death was the results of ordinary causes the body was usually buried in a grove of trees which serves as a cemetery for several families. On the other hand during epidemics of smallpox and cholera the bodies were frequently left in the abandoned huts or cast into the rivers and sea in order to destroy, if possible, the cause of the contagion. Usually the balian (shaman), man or woman, is called in to minister to the sick, and entire reliance is placed upon his judgment in the employment of herbs and prayers to drive away the evil spirits which are believed to produce the illness. Medicine and religion are so closely allied in daily life that the herbs used in medication are considered quite ineffective unless administered by the balian. If the deceased is a male adult the women of his family engage in wild lamentations while others prepare the body for burial. The body may be encased in a wooden receptacle hollowed out from a tree, or wrapped up in mats securely bound about with strips of bejuco or bamboo. The graves are marked by carved pieces of wood and decorated by a varied arrangement of stones and shells. Bodies are sometimes placed for burial in natural caves where available, and in the hollow trunks of large trees. Some buried grounds are located on a top of a hill sometimes surrounded by lines of trees. Together with the body was buried also Chinese Jars which contained offerings for the dead in the journey to the afterworld. In some cases to avoid the unearthing of the dead by dogs the bodies were buried near the house and sometimes under the house, especially in the case of children. If near the house shelters were erected over the graves and the spot was in closed with a fence of split bamboo or poles.  Subanens have several types of songs, Geloy is a funeral song. It is usually sung by two singers, one of them being the balian, during a Gukas, the ritual ceremony performed as a memorial for the death of a high ranking member ofthe community. It is accompanied by the ritualistic offering of food and wine (Pangasi) poured onto the earth. Then the chanting moves inside the house.

Two other cerimonies are important: buklug timala and the puluntuh. These celrbrations provide a contrast to the rather simple funeral and burial. Mourning take place in the home with the body present and accompanied by loud waling. Friends and family gather for food and fasting. A balian burn incense, beats a bowl, and touches the posts of the room with tha blood of a freshly killed cock to drive away the eveil spirits before the body is taken down for burial. The burial is simple. the body is wrapped in a white cloth and laid in a hollowed-out log coffin. Funerary objects include pieces of broken pottery, knives, betel boxes, and some food offerings. The coffin is borne away with no procession to a shallow grave in an nearby grove of trees previously chosen as a cemetery. Sometimes shelter will be built over the grave, a small mound raised or a carved wooden marker added.

Buklud Timala

It always precedes the puluntuh. The Timala functions is a liberating cerimony for those relatives living in the same house as the deceased. A death causes members of the household to be subjected to rigorous religious taboo, or mourning prohibitions called li-ing as:

Prohibition of marriage: marriage before the Timala takes place is considered scandalous and certain to bring misfortune. Prohibition of gong-beating, dancing and festivities. No colorful clothes may be worn. White is the usual color. The principal mourner, the person closest to the deceased, refrains from wahing and grooming his/her person and wears old and shabby clothes unchanged  and canot leave the house until Timala is completed. No litigation or transaction are allowed.

The Buklud-Timala takes place in two o three weeks after the burial and lasts for part of a evening. On the evening one balian burns incence and beat a bowl and the food on the altar is consumed. On other balian invokes the spirits to approach the altar. The previous balian dances around the altar. Then the two balian change roles. And so on. Then the cerimony is interrupted to cook rice and chicken to be returned to the altar. The large gongs hung in the house are beaten joyfully and the principal mourner leaves the house, casts off the dirty clothes and combs and clips his/her hair. So the period of mourning is over and the festive food and drink are consumed by the participants.


It takes place few months after the timala when the family can gather sufficient means to hold one. The puluntuh starts before sunset and last til mid-morning of the next day. A platform for dancing it is raised and large amounts of rice beer, rice, chicken and pork, betel quids and eggs are collected for the occasion.

The pourpose of puluntuh is to invoke diwata to come to the feast and protect the partecipant from the evil spirits. The action takes place around two small altar, one each for male and female diwata. After asking the diwatas to protect the people a small pig is killed and offered. the blood is then smeared on the supporting beams of the dancing platform. Invocations take place on the platform wher five balians take part in the offerings with sequences of incensing, dancing, bowlbeatings The offering takes place on a passageway from the porch of the house to the platform, without dancing and repeated several times. An altar is place in the middle of the house with the same but more elaborated offerings and dancings. The altar is large draped with men’s and women’s clothing. There is the same sequences of rites. This phase is called the freeing of the dead. Then a balian kills a rooster after pronouncing a specific and misterious formula. This signifies that the dead are now avenged and freed.  The bird is cooked and place on the altar. After other and similar cerimonies the altar is hoisted up under the roof of the house.


From “A WOMAN’S IMPRESSION” by Mary Helen Fee

Observations of an american women in 1910 regarding the filipino burials. (from Project Gutemberg:

Sickbeds and Funerals

Filipinos are punctilious about many things concerning which we have passed the extremely punctilious stage. Some of their strictest observances are in the matters of sickness and death. The sick have what we would consider a hard time. To begin with, they are immured in rooms from which, as far as possible, all light and air are excluded. In a tropical climate, where the breeze is almost indispensable to comfort, the reader may imagine the result. Then all their relatives, near and far, flock to see them; they crowd the apartment, and insist on talking to keep the patient from becoming _triste_. When the sufferer finds this insupportable and gives up
the struggle to live, the whole clan, out to the last connection, set about preparing their mourning.

Every woman makes a black dress, and every man ties a band of black cloth around his white coat sleeve. When there is a wake, it is noisy enough to be Irish. Our Eastern friends resemble the Irish also in their love of a fine funeral. To go to the last resting-place escorted by a band and with all possible ceremony seems to make even death acceptable to them.

Among the very poor this ambition is quite disproportionate to their resources. The percentage of infant mortality, owing to poor nutrition, is especially high; yet babe after babe whose mother unwittingly starved it to death is given a funeral in which the baby carriage hearse is preceded by a local band, and hired mourners stalk solemnly behind the little coffin in place of the mother, who is, in etiquette, required to remain at home.

In Manila funerals resemble our own, save that the hearse, be it white for a child or black for an adult, is drawn by stately caparisoned horses, at the bridles of which stalk men in eighteenth-century court costumes, which include huge shoe buckles, black silk stockings, and powdered wigs. The carriages flock behind with little pretence of order, and at a sharper pace than is customary with us. The populace are, however, most respectful; rich and poor alike remove their hats when the funeral _cortege_ is passing.

In the provinces where there are no hearses, a funeral consists usually of a coffin carried on the shoulders of four men, and followed by a straggling concourse of mourners. If the corpse be that of a child, it not infrequently lies, gorgeously dressed, upon the blue-and-pink-beribboned cushions of a four-wheeled baby carriage. New-born babes are buried in tiny coffins covered with pink or blue cambric.

The Filipinos say that when a child dies its pure little soul goes straight to _gloria_, wherefore it is much to be congratulated on leaving this abode of sorrow for one of unending happiness, and only gay music is used at the funeral. The local bands play solely by ear, and make the most of whatever music they hear sung or whistled on the streets, with the result that strangely inappropriate selections are used on these occasions. At the first child’s funeral I ever saw, the band was playing “Hot Time,” and a friend to whom I related this fact, declared that at the first one he ever saw they were playing, “I don’t care if you never come back.” This sounds too fortuitously happy to be true, but it is quite within the possible.

When I had lived in Capiz a year or two, my washerman, or _lavandero_, died, and his widow, pointing to a numerous progeny, besought for an advance of five pesos for necessary funeral expenses. She wanted ten, but I refused to countenance that extravagance. She did not seem overcome by grief, and her plea of numerous offspring was really valueless, for, if anything, they were all better off than before. Her lord had been only a sham washerman, collecting the garments for her to wash, delivering them, and pocketing the returns, of which he gave her as small a moiety as would sustain life, and spent the rest on the cockpit.

Funerals in a country where there are no preservatives take place very soon. The lavandero died at dawn, his widow made her levy on me before seven o’clock, and, coming home that afternoon, I met the funeral in a thickly shaded lane. Local tradition disapproves of the appearance of near female relations at a funeral, so the dead man’s escort consisted only of the four bearers, and three small boys, all under eleven years of age. The coffin was one in general use–rented for the trip to the cemetery! Once there, the body, wrapped in its _petate_, or sleeping mat, would be rolled into a shallow grave.

The four bearers were dirty and were chewing betel-nut as they trudged along under their burden. Behind them came the dead man’s son, apparelled in a pair of blue denim trousers. His body, naked to the waist, was glistening brown after a bath, and he carried under one arm a fresh laundered _camisa_, or Chino shirt, of white muslin, to be put on when he reached the church.

His two supporters were the brothers of my _muchacha_, who lived in the same yard and who evidently had convictions about standing by a comrade in misfortune. The elder, a boy of seven, was fairly clean; but the younger, somewhere between three and five, was clad in a single low-necked slip of filthy pink cotton, which draped itself at a coquettish angle across his shoulders, and hung down two or three inches below his left knee. His smile, which was of a most engaging
nature, occupied so much of his countenance that it was difficult to find traces of the pride which actually radiated from the other two.

My curiosity was enough to make me turn and follow them to the church. There the body was deposited on the floor at the rear, just below a door in the gallery which led to the priest’s house, or _convento_. The bearers squatted on their heels and fell to wrapping up pieces of betel-nut in lime paste and _buya_ leaf, while a sacristan went to call the priest. The dead man’s son reverently put on his clean shirt, and the youngest urchin sucked his thumb and continued to grin at me.

Presently a priest came through the door and leaned over the gallery, followed by two sacristans, one bearing a censer and the other a bell. The censer-bearer swung his implement vindictively in the direction of the corpse, while the other rang a melodious chime on the bell. At this all the babies fell on their knees. The priest muttered a few lines of Latin, made the sign of the cross, and disappeared to another chime of the bells and a last toss of the censer. The bearers picked up the coffin, and the little procession went on its way to the cemetery. The ceremony lasted about one minute and a half, and consumed three out of my five pesos.

This incident illustrates neatly the friendless condition in which most Filipino poor live. Filipino lower-class people are gregarious, but not sociable. They are averse to solitary rural life and tend everywhere to live in villages, but they visit little with each other, and seem very indifferent to the cordial relations which bind our own laboring classes together.

In the same yard with the dead lavandero lived at least ten or twelve other families, yet no one could be found to accompany him to his grave save two play-mates of his son.

If the poor are fond of display, the rich outvie them. The pomp of a rich man’s obsequies finds its beginning while he is yet on earth, when the padre goes in state to administer extreme unction. His vehicle, a gilt coach which looks like the pictures of those of the seventeenth century, is often preceded by a band, while the priest within is arrayed in embroidered vestments. When the _surra_, or horse disease, had made a scarcity of those animals, the padre’s gilded equipage had
to be drawn by a cebu, or very small and weary-looking cow, imported from Indo-China. The spectacle of this yoke animal, the gilt coach, and the padre in all his vestments was one not to be forgotten.

When the rich man dies, there is generally a wake, noisy enough, as before stated, to be Irish, and a pretentious funeral. Five o’clock in the afternoon seems to be a favorite hour for this. In the rainy season, with sodden clouds hanging low in the sky, with almond trees dripping down, and the great church starred with candles which do not illuminate but which dot the gloom, the occasion is lugubrious indeed. Fresh flowers are little used, but _immortelles_ and set designs accompanied by long streamers of gilt-lettered ribbon attest the courtesy of friends.

They bury the dead–that is, all the upper-class dead–in _nichos_, or ovens, such as are found in the old cemeteries of New Orleans. The cemetery, which is usually owned, not by the municipality but by the church, is surrounded by a brick or stone wall six or eight feet high surmounted by a balustrade of red baked clay in an urn design. The ovens form their back walls against this, and are arranged in tiers of four or five, so that the top of the ovens makes a fine promenade around three sides of the enclosure. In the centre there is generally a mortuary chapel, where the final words are said. From the chapel tiled walks lead out to the ovens. The plan is a very pretty one, and if the cemeteries were kept in good condition, it would be beautiful. But they are nearly always dirty and neglected.

In the open ground between the chapel and the sides, the poor people are rolled into graves so shallow that a little digging would soonexhume the body. The nichos, or ovens, are rented by the year; if the tenant’s surviving family are not prompt with the annual payment, the body is taken out, the bones cast ruthlessly over the back fence, and the premises once more declared vacant. When we first came, there used to be a great heap of these bones at the back of the Paco Cemetery in Manila, but so much was said about them that the Church grew sensitive and removed them. Our cemetery at Capiz also had its bone heap.

An American negress, a dressmaker who was working for me, told me that there was a petrified man, an American, in the Paco Cemetery, and that the body was on exhibition. She had been to see it, and it was wonderful. I had my doubts about the petrifying, but as I had to pass the cemetery on leaving her house, I asked the custodian at the gate if there was such a body there. He said that the body had just been removed by the city authorities to be placed in the “Cemeterio del Norte,” where there is a plot for paupers. The body was that of an American, buried in the cemetery five years before. His rent, five pesos a year, had been prepaid for five years, but his time had run out. When they came to take out the body, which had been embalmed, it was found in a remarkable state of preservation. The custodian said, with an irreligious grin, that in the old days the condition of the body would have been called a miracle, and a patron saint would have been made responsible, and all the people would have come, bearing lighted candles, to do honor to the saint; and he added regretfully that it was no good in these days. The Americans would say that it was because of their superior embalming process. “But what a chance missed!” he said, “and what a pity to let it go with no demonstration!” There are many ways of looking at the same thing. I could not help laughing, thinking of the negress. She said, “He’s sittin’ up there by the little church, lookin’ as handsome as life–and him petrified!”



by fr. Leonardo N.Mercado, SVD (From World Mission, november 2010)

A theological dissertation was defended at Manila’s De la Salle University in April 2010. It is entitled “Undersanding Ancestor Reverence in the Benguet Kankanaey Indigenous Tradition: towards a Dialogue with Christian Traditions. The author, Leonila L.Taray, also a member of the Kankanaeys of the Cordilleras, writes that the century-old indigenous people traditional practices are still quite alive today. Although the findings of the study refer to Kankanaey society, we may also apply them to other indigenous people and lowland Christian Filipinos.

Taray writes that, even after death, the departed “remain as member of the family and the clan”, that “they have the power to grant blessings, shower prosperity, long life, and healthy life for their descendants on earth. It is also within their power to cause illness and misfortunes to the living.” Their mode of action is rooted in clan lineage, consanguinity and affinity.

The Kankanaeys also believe that the spirits of those who recently died are perceived to linger on earth for some time. That is why the living invite the departed to join in the rituals, to partake in eating and drinking in ordinary gatherings. This belief is shown when the living put in few drops of liquor before drinking.

In MetroManila, where the men informally gather in side alleys over drinks and finger food, a common practice in the gathering is to empty a few drops in the glass and pour the contents into the ground. We have heard on an incident where some professionals with PhDs, during a tennis break, poured out a drink to the spirits.


Th Kankanaeys behave and act in the conviction that daily life is linked with social economic, and the religious. Because the departed and the living are integrated as one, religion permeates all aspects of life. Taray writes: “Those who lived in the past continue to relate with and affect the lives of those in the present; those in the sky world continue to join and bless those in the earth during performance of rituals or ceremonies and those in the underworld are enjoined likewise. Thus, the Benguet Kankanaeys perceive the world as an integrated world of the living and the dead. Humanity does not stand apart from nature.

While Greek-inspired Western theology speaks of the natural and the supernatural, the Kankanaeys and Filipino popular religiosity prefer to speak of the seen and unseen. This way of thinking  is also in the Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth , of all that is seen and unseen.”

That is the way Filipino popular religiosity has the practice of pasing-tabi. For instance, before throwing water outside the window even when nobody is seen to be around, the typical Filipino will say, “Tabi-po!” (please stop aside). The practice reflects the belief that the unseen spirits can get wet and perhaps take revenge for the act.


Taray continues: “In general the Benguet people view death as a translocation of this life into the spirit world. It is seen as a shift from a personal’s earthly existence into a new life in the spirit world. It is believed that undergoing such a shift meant the dead needs the support and remembrance of the living relatives.”

Death, therefore, is not the end of life but the beginning of a new life. Traditional catholic practice considers the day of one’s death as that person’s dies natalis or birthday, where one is born into eternal life. The preface of the requiem Mass asserts this belief: “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

We hear consistent reports saying that, shortly before a sick person dies, departed relatives appear in order to fetch her. The word in Tagalog is  sundo  , as fetching somebody for a trip.


While western Christians offer flowers, the Asian of various religions have food offerings for the spirits and the departed, An essential part of the Benguet Kankanaey rituals involve killing of animals (chicken, pig, cow, carabao and dog), and the offering of tapey or rice wine to the deities, spirits and ancestors. Taray continues: “A majority of rituals are performed to the spirit of deceased kin, to ward off sickness or avert bad luck in farming or in mining.” The rituals illustrate the belief that the departed continue living in the other world.

Food offerings are not only for the indigenous people because Filipino Christians, especially in the grassroots level, continue the indigenous practice. The three biggest Philippine languages have their terms for food offering:  alay  in Tagalog,  halad in Cebuano Visayan and  atang in Ilocano. During wakes, on can find usually a plate with food for the dead. The food offering can also be found on the family altar which has holy picture and statues. According to Taray, the Kankanaeys “believe in sustaining and maintaining the needs of their spirit-relative during her or his journey by offering money, food clothing, tapey rice wine and providing working tools with which the departed will continue working in the next life. The offerings also give the departed the moral strength and the emotional support to go on till he or she reaches the ancestral home.”

A common Filipino practice is that a person who travel takes along things as courier or as a messenger. In the squatter areas of MetroManila, I have seen the practice of the bereaved putting some things inside the coffin with the conviction that the departed will take them to the next world.

In the cursory comparison above between the traditional religion and the Filipino lowland Christianity, the contrast is not like between white and black. The contrast on the part of Christians has gradations, that is, from Christian in dress but the spirit of tradition to being totally westernized in Christian practices. But if the ordinary Filipino Christian is to be taken as an average Filipino living a popular religiosity , this group certainly reflects the spirit of traditional religion.


The foregoing phenomena reflect the Christian doctrine of the communion of saints, which is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. It means the spiritual solidarity between the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven – all members of the mystical body with Christ as the head. While Jesus Christ is the only mediator, worship (latria) is given to God alone while the saints are given honor (dulia). And with only the canonized and beatified can be honored universally, there is no prohibition in asking the help from non-canonized departed relatives.

Because of the similarity between traditional religion and Christianity, the indigenous people found no difficult in accepting Christianity. The Spanish missionaries, for example, substituted the ancestor veneration with veneration of saints. Even if the Filipino indigenous people accepted Christianity, the inspiration continued the spirit of traditional religion. And one finds that even in MetroManila. The foregoing model would be a dynamic equivalence or adaptation.

How does one look theologically at the Filipino practices about the dead? The pre-Vatican II Theology looked at the rest of the world from the viewpoint of scholastic-inspired theology. That is why, after a long-simmering controversy between the followers of the famous Jesuit, Matteo Ricci and his opponents, Pope Clement XI in 1704 condemned the Chinese veneration to ancestors and to Confucius. However, Pope Pius XII revoked this prohibition in 1939. So, today, Chinese Catholics have no qualms in offering incense sticks to their departed even during Holy Mass.


Another theological model is to look at other cultures as preparatio evangelica, as preparation for the gospel. Some Church Fathers considered Greek culture and writings like the Old testament wich find their fulfillment in Christianity. For example the Roman missal has the sequence entitled Dies Irae  , a thirteenth century latin poem used for Requiem Masses. It still found in the Liturgy of the Hours. A part of it reads:  Dies irae, dies ila / solvet saeclum in favilla, / teste David cum Sybylla. (The day of wrath, that dreadful day / Shall the whole world in ashes lay. / As David and the Sybil say.) The sibyls (from the Greek, sybilla, were the women (in the mythology) who prophesied as some (mitical) holy sites like Delpi. The medieval theologians put the sibyls in the same level as David and as Old Testament counterparts in prophesying the Last Judgment.

The  ancient Church Fathers gave Christian interpretation to Homer and Plato. Socrates was considered a type of Christ. The writings of Virgil were considered as non-Jewish counterpart of the Old Testament. If the Fathers looked at Greek culture as old Testament which finds fulfillment in Christ and the New Testament, might the same ay of thinking be on the culture of traditional religion?

Hoe ever, a further development has been to have another theological model, namely the incarnation. In this model, humanity and divinity have a mutual give and take. Christianity then takes a position not as a teacher but as a dialogue partner. Both partners stand as equal. Vatican II (AdGentes,10) states: “If the Church is to be in a position to offer all men the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ, by His incarnation, committed Himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among whom He lived.”

Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (no.56) writes that, in interreligious dialogue, both partners must be open to each other for mutual enrichment: “Those engaged in this dialogue must be consistent with their own religion traditions and convictions, and be open to understanding those of the other party without pretense or close-mindedness, but with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each other.”

If Christianity seriously takes interreligious dialogue, then the voice of indigenous people and their practices must also be studied. The foregoing ideas point to a direction which has to be mined.

One response to “Tribal Burial Traditions in Mindanao

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