One of the differences I have observed about the different remote villages I’m visiting in Upper Kisga is the place the dead are given.  It is almost an indication of how ‘Christianised’ the villages have come.  There is documentary and oral evidence that successive missionaries encouraged people to build a cemetery outside of the villages, but they never insisted on it.  The dead and the spirits of ancestors play a significant role in these mountain tribes.  The nearby Bontoc region  – where some of my companions are – is famous for the hanging coffins in some of the caves.  In fact, according to Lonely Planet, different from the 9 other different cultures that practice dmummification – here in the Cordillera they are unique in that do not touch any internal organs. Corpses are dried in the heat of a fire, embalmed herbally and then over six months smoke is blown into abdominal cavities to dry out worms and preserve organs. Here in Tunadan – at least in the remoter villages – the dead are still buried next to the houses of the family.

This means, as you can see in the picture, that graves are interspersed amongst the dwellings – sometimes even underneath homes. In some houses when the family gather to eat, they will call on the name of the dead relative to join them – as they believe that the spirit is still roaming about their former habitat.  Again whether this is practiced or not would indicate the level of ‘christianisation’ that has happened.  The old lady who was explaining this to me assured me that in her eyes it was superstition. She then gave a very impressive exposition of how important belief in the Resurrection is now for her family. I hope she wasn’t just saying it to impress the priest!  The other fascinating detail she told me was about  the tradition of mourning.  It used to be that a widow would not cut his hair for a year and then could cut it only if he went to an enemy tribe or village and came back with a head. The old lady, laughing, assured me that this expectation was commuted long before she was born, to hunting a wild boar or deer for a day and a night, and coming back with its corpse to be shared in a feast.

It has always fascinated me the different ways we cope with death – in the UK very poorly I believe!  It is a peculiarly British habit to quarantine death with pragmatism, etiquette and control.  That is definitely not the case here. I was very fond of the HBO series Six Feet Under for this reason and  I have put on my Amazon Wish List (hint hint!) a fascinating book called Making An Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre. How We Dignify the Dead by Sarah Murray How we deal with death often is more about how the living cope with loss and the values that underpin that.  Here the people have such a strong collective identity – which seems to be both positive and negative.