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The Hanging Coffins on the Cliffs

31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.

Hanging coffins of Sagada (photograph by Dahon/Flickr user)

In areas of China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, the dead soar up above the living in hanging coffins on the cliffs.

The tradition of hanging coffins is quite ancient, in China going back to 772 BC, although it is still practiced in some places, such as Sagada on Luzon Island in the Philippines. The reason for hanging coffins varies as much as the cultures that have practiced the burial tradition, ranging from practical reasons to avoid the dead being disturbed, to more spiritual beliefs like bringing the deceased closer to the heavens.

One of the biggest mysteries around the hanging coffins is how exactly they got up there. The ones on Dragon-Tiger Mountain from the Guyue people who lived as early as 2,500 years ago in China and shaped their coffins like ships to reflect the importance of the maritime to their life, weren’t even known about until 1978 as they are up at such impossible heights. Some speculate that there were earthen ramps, others that people actually scaled the cliffs with the coffins in tow, although being that most of the coffins are quite hefty as they were carved from single pieces of wood, sometimes big enough to hold ten people, this seems almost impossible. 

Sometimes the coffins are nestled into natural caves, other times they were carefully placed on handmade wood beams. Some had more curious rites attached to them, like in Sagada where you had to be both married and have grandchildren to receive the honor, and you carved the coffin yourself before your death, after which your bones were often bent to squeeze inside the narrow space. And in Gongxian in China, they are one of the few remains of the Bo people, who themselves strangely disappeared. 

Below are a few photographs of these hanging coffins:

SAGADA,
Luzon Island, Philippines


photograph by Rick McCharles


photograph by Rick McCharles

photograph by Jungarcia888/Wikimedia


photograph by jojo nicdao

YANGTZE RIVER
Three Gorges, China


photograph by Terry Feuerborn


photograph by putneymark/Flickr user


photograph by putneymark/Flickr user


photograph by Peter Tritthart

TANA TORAJA
Sulawesi, Indonesia


photograph by intothegreen/Flickr user


photograph by Ross Thompson


photograph by Gary Romanuk


photograph by Sanjay P. K.


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