Funeral practices and burial customs in the Philippines

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A funeral procession in the Philippines, 2009.

During the Pre-Hispanic period the early Filipinos had already believed in a concept of life after death.[1] This belief in an afterlife prompted the Filipinos to create burial customs and beliefs to somehow honor the dead through rituals. Due to different cultures from different part of the Philippines, many different burial practices have also emerged from the different tribes. For example, The Manobos had to bury their dead in trees, the Ifugaos had to seat their corpse on a chari before it was brought to a cave and buried elsewhere.[2] The present day Filipinos had retained the belief of life after death from their ancestors. Which is why it is only customary for the present day Filipino to also honor the dead through different practices. Most prominent practice of honoring the dead is by holding a wake as way for the loved ones to properly mourn the death of one that is dear to them.[3] Most Filipino Christians hold the wake at the funeral homes but others also hold them at their own household wherein the wake would be held for three to seven days and the family members would be required to wear either black or white during the procession.[3] Unlike their Christian brethren, Filipino Muslims are required to bury the dead 24 hours after the time of death. This custom dates back to when the spread of disease was a prominent risk, the Muslims prompted to bury the corpse as soon as possible for sanitary reasons such as avoiding the widespread disease that could come from the rotting corpse.[4] One thing that would be common between these two systems is that both practices believe in mourning even after the burial. In the case of Filipino Muslims, the mourning period lasts 40 days, during which they are required to wear black clothing. Filipino Christians have the "waksi", or death anniversary, and mourning on the 40th day.[3][5]

Filipino Christian burial customs[edit]


When a person dies in the Philippines, Filipino Catholic people,[6] such as the Tagalogs,[7] generally hold a wake known as lamay or paglalamay, a vigil that typically lasts for three to seven nights,[6][8] but may last longer if the bereaved family is waiting for a relation traveling from afar. During this time, the cleaned and embalmed[7] corpse is placed in a coffin, and displayed at the house of deceased[6] or a funeral home.[8] The casket is traditionally surrounded by funeral lights, a guest registry book, a contribution box, and flowers.[9] Family members, relatives, and acquaintances participate in the vigil.

Apart from offering condolences, mourners and visitors provide financial donations (abuloy) to help assuage the funeral and burial expenses. Food and drinks are customarily served by the bereaved during the night vigil,[8] and typical activities conducted outside or near the vigil area include engaging in conversation, singing, guitar playing,[10] and gambling – such as playing card games[7] – to keep mourners awake.[7][9]

It is socially acceptable for visitors to ask the bereaved questions deemed sensitive in other cultures. These include how the decedent died, if he or she suffered, or the cost of hospitalization or treatment. Such personal questions convey valid affection and concern for the deceased and the bereaved.[6] Other people also customarily offer masses, novenas, and prayers for the benefit of the deceased.[9]

On the funeral day, the coffin is generally loaded into a hearse or borne by family members, relatives, or friends in procession towards the church and later the cemetery.[6] Other mourners follow the hearse during the funeral march. Catholic funerals involve the celebration of the Mass, while Protestant funerals include singing of hymns and recitation of prayers by a minister.[9]

The traditional color worn at memorial services and interments is black, save for Chinese Filipinos and Ilocanos, who both customarily don white. If white clothing is worn, it is customary to have a small, rectangular black mourning pin on the left breast.[9] Some funerals have men wear the Barong Tagalog and black trousers while sporting a black armband; as it is formal wear, traditionally acceptable colors include shades of white. Women are often dressed in either black or white, with those in more conservative areas also wear veils and headbands that match their dress.

After the entombment, mourners offer prayers such as the rosary[6] for the dead every evening for nine days, a custom called the pasiyam or pagsisiyam (literally, “that which is done for nine days”). This novena period often ends with a service followed by formal meal with family and close friends. The custom is base on the folk belief that the soul of the departed enters the spirit world on the ninth day following death. This is followed by a special prayer service or Mass on the fortieth day, when the soul is believed to end its earthly wandering and ascend to the afterlife, the time period evoking the days between Christ's Resurrection and Ascension. The bereavement period extends for a period of one year when another service is held on the first death anniversary, called the babang luksâ (lit., "descent from mourning").[6][9]

All Souls Day[edit]

Catholic and Aglipayan Filipinos pay respects to the ancestors on All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. People gather in graveyards to clean and decorate the family grave as early as All Hallow's Eve, then offer the dead prayers, candles, flowers and sometimes food. More often than not, mourners keep vigil overnight at graves, eating and making merry to pass the time and keep the dead company.[7] A popular children's pastime during such vigils is to gather candle wax from melted candles to either play with or sell to candlemakers.[6][9]

Regional customs[edit]


A coffin of an Igorot noble with his coronets and other ornaments (c. 1900).


The Apayaos, also known as the Isnegs or Isnags, of the Cordillera Administrative Region wrap the deceased person in a mat (ikamen) and is carried on the shoulders of the immediate male family members. Items are placed inside the coffin in order to help the deceased person in his journey such as jar basi to quench the deceased one's thirst, a spear and shield is also put inside in order to help him protect himself from enemies. The coffin will then be lowered down either in the kitchen area of their homes or in a burial site owned by his family.[11]


For eight days, the indigenous people from Benguet blindfold the dead and then sit it on a chair that is placed next to a house's main entrance. The arms and legs are tied together in the sitting position. A bangil rite is performed by the elders on the eve of the funeral, which is a chanted narration of the biography of the deceased. During interment, the departed is directed towards heaven by hitting bamboo sticks together.[12]


The Tagalog people had numerous burial practices prior to Spanish colonization and Catholic introduction. In rural areas of Cavite, trees are used as burial places. The dying person chooses the tree beforehand, thus when he or she becomes terminally ill or is evidently going to die because old age, a hut is built close to the said tree. The deceased's corpse is then entombed vertically inside the hollowed-out tree trunk. Before colonization, a statue known as likha is also entombed with the dead inside the tree trunk. In Mulanay, Quezon and nearby areas, the dead are entombed inside limestone sarcophagi along with a likha statue. However, the practice vanished in the 16th century due to Spanish colonization. In Calatagan, Batangas and nearby areas, the dead are buried under the earth along with likha statues. The statues, measuring 6-12 inches, are personified depictions of anitos. Likha statues are not limited to burial practices as they are also used in homes, prayers, agriculture, medicine, travel, and other means.[8]


Filipinos in Ilocos have funeral and burial traditions known as the pompon or "burial rites".[7]


A dead man is prepared by his wife for the wake, known in Ilocano as the bagongon. Typically, only the wife will clothe the corpse, believing that the spirit of the dead man can convey messages through her. There are many customs and beliefs that are followed, such as coffin placement, lighting a wooden log in front of the house, chanting while crying (dung-aw), in order to give the deceased one respects and ensuring a safe travel to heaven. During the wake, immediate family members of the deceased one are not allowed to work, cook, or carry heavy objects. The ceremonial attire of female mourners for the vigil is black clothing, while their heads and shoulders are covered in a black veil called a manto.


Windows are closed before the casket exits the house, while care is exercised to prevent the casket from touching any part of the house. This is to prevent the deceased's spirit from loitering and bringing misfortune to the household; to some Filipinos, a casket hitting any object during a funeral means that another person will die soon.[8] The clothing and possessions belonging to the deceased are burned and thrown into the river. After the burial service, family members wash their hair with a shampoo made from burnt rice stalks, water, and basi, called "gulgol" to remove the influence of the deceased's spirit. Rice cakes and basi are offered to attendees after each prayer session.[7] On the ninth night, the family holds a feast after praying the novena,[7] and does so again after offering prayers on the first death anniversary.[7][13]


The Ilongot is buried in a sitting position, and if a woman, has her hands tied to her feet, to prevent her "ghost" from roaming.[8]


The Itnegs of Abra have a customary habit of burying their dead under their houses.[8]


Sketch of an anthropomorphic jar from Maitum in the Saranggani Province of Mindanao.

One of the ancient customs for burying the dead in the Philippines is through the use of burial jars known as Manunggul jars. These ancient potteries were found in the Manunggul Cave on the island of Palawan. A characteristic of the jars for the dead is the presence of anthropomorphic human figures on the pot covers. These figures embody souls riding a boat for the dead while seafaring towards their sanctuary in the afterlife. These containers have been dated from 710 BC to 890 BC. There are also figures of boating people steering paddles, wearing headbands, jaw-bands, and persons with hands folded across the chest area. The latter is a method of arranging the remains of the dead.[14][15]

Other similar anthropomorphic jars were also found at Pinol (also spelled as Piñol), Maitum, in the Saranggani Province of the island of Mindanao. These funeral jars dates back from the Metal Age.[14][15]

In addition to these jars, the 1965 archaeological excavations done by Robert Fox at Langen Island in El Nido, Palawan found out that a cave known as Leta-leta Cave was a burial site that dates to the Late Neolithic Period.[14][15]

In Sagada[edit]

Hanging coffins at Sagada Province in the Philippines.

In Sagada, Mountain Province, the ancient funeral norm of hanging coffins from mountain cliffs is still practiced by some minority groups. The purpose of suspending the casket from the mountain rocks is to bring the deceased closer to heaven.[16][17][18][19]

In ancient times, coffins were made from carved and hollowed-out wood. They are 'hung' in place through the use of projecting beams.[16][17][18][19]


For many weeks, the Tinguian people dress the dead body with the best garments, sit it on a chair, and sometimes put a lit tobacco source between the dead person's lips.[8]

The Visayas[edit]

The Visayas has six major islands, namely: Panay, Negros, Cebu, Bohol, Samar, and Leyte. The islands are home to different ethnic groups, and have similarities and differences in their traditions.

Ancient Practices in the Visayas[edit]

The paguli was a ritual performed when all efforts to heal the moribund had failed, in an effort to call back the departed soul (1). A coconut shell of water was set upon the dying person's stomach and was rotated to the chant: “Come back, soul, come back” as noted by Alcina in 1668. In the case of a datu, some slaves could be sacrificed to appease ancestor spirits.[20]

A cadaver was anointed and groomed, and shrouded in gold and jewelry. The deceased was dressed in gold to assure ready reception in the afterlife, and gold was placed within the mouth and between the layers of the many blankets that covered the body.[20][21]

Visayan coffins called longon were made out of hardwood made out of a single tree trunk, which was fitted and pegged with a lid cut out of the same tree and sealed with resin.[20] Persons of prominence and datus could be buried in a coffin with decorative carvings, and the carvings often executed by the future occupant himself.[20] Poor Visayans were buried wrapped in banana leaves or simple caskets made out of thin boards or bamboo.[21]

A corpse was placed within the coffin with all body cavities filled with betel sap,[20][21] along with finery and heirlooms. Plates and saucers could be placed under the head like a pillow, or over the face and chest, in some areas some corpses could be adorned with masks or mouthpieces made of gold.[20][21] Deceased infants, newborns, or aborted babies were buried in crocks or jars, even Chinese porcelain.[20]

Grave sites varied considerably in the Visayas.[20] Some graveyards were outside village borders, dug into banks of rivers or at the seacoast. Caves, or small islands would be used when available. Spiritual leaders and members of the datu class were not buried in public graveyards, and were buried under their houses or in the case of the babaylan, were exposed to the elements hanging from the branches of the balete tree.[20]

Wakes lasted for as long as the bereaved family could offer food and drink for guests.[20][21] Professional mourners who were generally old women, sang dirges to emphasize the grief of the survivors, and eulogized the qualities of the dead.[20][21] The eulogies were considered a form of ancestor worship as they were addressed directly to the dead and included prayers of petition.[20]

Widows and widowers observed three days of fasting and silence, wherein they did not bathe or comb their hair, and may even shave their hair and eyebrows as a special sign of grief.[20][21] They abstained from eating cooked food until the mourning period ended.[20] In the case of the death of a datu, his wives, or children: the community was placed under strict mourning requirement called the pumaraw[20] where no one was to wear colored clothes, climb coconut trees, or fish in certain streams; and spears were to be carried point down and side arms blade up.[20][21] A mournful silence was to be conserved, and families could be enslaved as punishment for breaking the mourning interdict.[20]


Funeral traditions of the Cebuano people also include nine-day recitation of the rosary, litanies, novenas, and Latin prayers after the burial, additionally chanting the Pahulayng Dayon or “Eternal Rest” (also known as "Gozos for the Dead"). Cebuanos also have superstitious beliefs related to funerals that include: placing funeral alms or limos into a container, refraining from sweeping the floor of the deceased's home (wastes are collected by hand instead of being swept by brooms; other Filipinos also have this superstition[7]), no bathing and no combing of hair on the part of relatives (other Filipinos too believe in this),[7] placing worn mourning pins into the coffin during interment, preventing tears from dropping onto the glass plate of the casket (in order for the departed soul to travel in peace), placing a chick on top of the coffin of an individual who died due to a transgression (to hasten justice for the dead victim), wearing black or white clothes during the interment (except for a child who is dressed with a red-colored garment, as a deterrent from seeing the ghost of the dead relative[8][22]), urging relatives to pass through under the casket before it is loaded onto the funeral hearse (to assist the surviving relatives in moving on with their life), marching the dead towards the church and the cemetery (known as the hatod, or “carrying the departed to his destination” on foot), consuming food only at the cemetery after the interment, and passing through smoke while still within the cemetery or by the gates of the cemetery (to untangle the spirits of the dead from the bodies of the living).[22]


Merriment, singing, and poem recitations are components of funerals in Oton, Iloilo. Gambling is also permitted because gaming contributions help defray expenses incurred in burying the dead.[8]


Mindanao, as the second largest island in the Philippines, consist of several ethnic tribes influenced by Islamic culture. It consists of ARMM, Caraga, Davao, Northern Mindanao, Soccsksargen and Zamboanga Peninsula, marking 8 degrees North and 125 degrees East on the map.


T’boli tribe thrive near Lake Sebu and has an interesting philosophy of death and life. They believed that death occurs if his/her spirit leave the body permanently by the evil spirit, Busao.[23] So their burial custom starts with laying the corpse on the boat-shaped coffin, which will be celebrated from a week to five months (and even a year for respected people like datu). The tribe often throws feast for commemoration in a positive vibe. This body, together with the wooden boat will be burnt at the end of the long wake, where the liquid extract from burnt woods will be collected for eatery. The tribe believes that the good qualities of the dead will be passed over through that liquid extract.


This tribe occupying Surigao del Norte has customs that fear the spirit of dead. The tribe community move their settlements when a death occurs, because they believed that the spirit of dead will come back for a revenge. So the corpse is buried on the day of its death, using the leaves, mat and coffin to cover the body either in sitting or standing position. Just like usual burial, this coffin is buried under the soil or it is sometimes displayed on the platform for people in high positions within their community. The community mourns and prays for the dead for approximately 9 days.[23]


Tausug people occupying Sulu are basically Muslims, thus, they have defined set of burial customs in the strong influence of their religion. The process of burial contains four steps: Sutchihun (cleaning the body), Saputan (wrapping the body), Sambayanganun (obligatory prayer), and Hikubul (burial). The grave is created hollow under 6 to 9 feet depth in North-South direction, which will be prayed upon by a religious man for a peaceful rest of the dead. Afterwards, the grave will be closed using ding ding hali (means “wall of the rest”) made of huge flat slab.[23]


Manobos occupied hinterland areas which today are within Davao. Originally, they either wrapped the corpse in mat and bamboo slats to hang up on the tree or laid the dead on an elevated station (such as platform) beside the trees. Placing the body on an elevated place was believed to help the dead's soul reach the heaven. However, after the Americans introducing Abaca plantation system in the 20th century, the custom changed to burying the corpse under the house. Due to the plantation, it became impossible to simply move out from their places like how they did before. For Ata-Manobos occupying the forest areas of Davao, have the unique superstition in teaching Antuk [23](riddles) other than for wake ceremony will bring misfortune. So in Ata-manobos' joyful wake custom, close people of the deceased gather and sit around the corpse (in laid down position) and chat, tell stories, sing, dance, play instruments and more to elevate the atmosphere of grief.


Similar to Manobo, Badjao tribe also carries out religious process to burying the dead. First, the body of dead will be positioned in the center of Umboh (floating hut) where it is laid parallel to the side wall. The preparation until the burial itself happens during the wake; first, food as homage will be brought, and the Song of the Dead will be sung. Second, the corpse-wrapping bandages are cut and washed in water while Imam (religious man) cleanses the body. Third, the dead will be dressed and decorated, which will later position itself lying on the floor. Next, Imam finally prays for the dead before the bandage completely covers the corpse. Then batik (a decoration) will be spread all over the cocoon. After finishing this ceremony within a day, Imam finally prays at the four corners of the buried site, then place Sundok (oblong stone that is believed to contain the spirit) near the head of the dead).[23]


The Subanu people thriving near the riverside had different burial procedure depending on the causes of death. For ordinary cause (dying due to age), the body was placed in the cemetery for common families. However, if for special cause (like contagion and illnesses), Balian or shaman is called to apply herbs and prayers on the dead for driving away evil spirits. After then, would they prepare for the wake by sculpting tree trunk to create coffin. Sometimes, bodies are merely placed in the empty cave or under the house, so that they could prevent stray dogs digging out the graveyard. It is a unique custom of Subanu to place Chinese jars containing offerings or food with the dead body, so that the afterlife journey of the dead will be successful. For the highly respected members of the community, two people (one being Balian) chant Geloy (funeral song) during Gukas (ritual ceremony to special people). Just like mass, this ritual ceremony is accompanied by food and wine called Pangasi offered to the dead.[23]


B’laan tribe is probably the most popular Mindanao occupants of Mountain provinces for Hanging Coffins of Sagada.[24] Even before the influence of Christianity, the elders feared being buried on the ground, since they wanted to reach heaven in their afterlife. Out of love and concern, the family would hang the coffins on the wall of the cave (such as Lumiang cave). However, this kind of burial procedure was similar to other fishing communities like Banton of Romblon. Another unique characteristic of this pre-colonial burial custom contains the tradition of inserting jars in the coffin. This was similar to the Manunggul jar discovered in Tabon cave, Palawan, making the custom pre-existing even before the pre-colonial era. For B'laan people, tree served as a zone of final rest, which is a unique pattern for most of the Mindanao tribes' burial custom as well.

Influenced Practices[edit]

Spanish Influence[edit]

Indigenous Filipinos have harbored their own religions long before the Spanish had arrived at their shores. Along with these religions, are corresponding burial practices to accompany such religions. Given that the Spanish occupancy in the Philippines had lasted almost four-hundred years, it would not be a rash assumption that Catholicism should have become widespread or have become the primary religion for the entire nation. This inference, however would be highly problematic as it is quite a ways from the actual truth. Persisting through the Spanish occupation, indigenous Filipino tribes continued with their respective religions and hence, with their customary burial practices. The Spanish influence however, highly affected the religious traditions and customs in the areas surrounding large trade cities and the capital. These influences include the location of the burials, position of the body and decoration of burial goods to name a few.

Pre-Hispanic Filipinos held their funeral rights in high regard, as most tribes believed that if the funeral process was not accomplished properly, the dead would return to the land of the living.[25] The Spanish also held care for the deceased in high regard, although not for the same reasons as the indigenous Filipinos. Nevertheless, this similarity served as a starting point, a fulcrum per se, to slowly infuse Catholic culture into the burial practices of the native Filipinos. One of the areas wherein the Spanish government immediately took action was the banning of crematory practices. This was due to the fact that "cremations were banned by the Catholic Church as it is against the belief that the dead will be resurrected by the second coming of Christ, which required the body to be intact."[25] This idea of resurrection would not be taken well by the Filipinos at that time however, and as a result the Spanish enlisted the help of Jesuits to attempt and convert Filipinos to Catholicism. This was accompanied by the fact that the conversions had to be supplemented by reassurance that this resurrection was by no means evil. With the slow spread of Catholic beliefs and practices, there was much more uniformity with regard to burials in the areas that had been affected by the Spanish influence. These new standard of burials were then subject to the criterion and requirements set by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the implementation of cemeteries apart from the central church would become widespread, mainly due to cholera epidemics and public health. The creation of cemeteries was another move from the traditional burial locations that the Filipinos were accustomed to, formerly being"burials beneath houses, within houses, or inside rock and cave shelters."[25] This was the case for the indigenous Filipinos as they felt that the dead were still in some way part of the community, albeit their drastically changed participance and presence. This move by the Spanish government was in lieu of the sacred space to be offered to the dead, a solemn sanctity that must be respected in order for the deceased to pass on.

Up until the twenty-first century, many if not all, of these religious practices have now become widespread and openly accepted in Philippine society.

American Influence[edit]

After the three century rule of the Spaniards in the Philippines came the American Occupation. American culture and influence started to find a place in a Philippine context by using various mediums, specifically the use of free trade. In this trading for and with the American market, a co-dependence between America and the Philippines was established.[26] Another medium of cultural assimilation from America was their implementation of their education system during the first decade of their occupation, all in which showing more prevalent effects in the political and cultural development of the Filipinos.[27] With the then-new educational system, young Filipinos were taught different American cultural devices such as their songs, values and ideals, and their subsequent assimilation of many of their traditions.[27] All these factors brought about by America allowed for a heterogeneous assimilation between the two distinct cultures that resulted in a unique outcome of specific American influence forming a distinct Filipino image. From here, this is a rich source to understand the nation in its present situation and its historical context.[28]

In relation to burial practices, the Philippine culture has borrowed heavily from the Americans. In the Philippine wake for example, it is in tradition that the family and friends hold the body of the deceased in a casket for 5 to 7 days for viewing;[29] this is patterned from the Visitation practiced also in American wakes, in which they host the deceased's body clothed and treated with various cosmetics in a funeral home for display and presentability.[30] Both cultures adapting to a similar execution of ritual grief. Another turning point courtesy of the American influence is the practice of cremation. Drawing heavily from the Catholic faith, many Filipinos do not practice cremation as they believe that the body must remain intact in order to fulfil and prepare for the resurrection of the dead.[29] Filipinos claimed that cremation must not be observed due to the Catholic church banning this practice, however as early as 1963 the ban was lifted and this point was emphasized in the 1983 revised Canon Law.[31]

Chinese Influence[edit]

Chinese-Filipino funeral and burial customs mainly depend on the religion of the family of the deceased. There is a mix of religions, such as Buddhist, Catholic, Born-Again Chrisitian, within the Chinese-Filipino sector of the Philippines. This is mainly due to the fact that initial Chinese settlers in the country were Buddhist, while their children and grandchildren would incorporate the mainstream religion of the country because of their Filipino-based education and exposure.[32] Therefore, most Chinese-Filipino funeral practices are a mix of the fundamental funeral practices of such religions stated above.

Chinese-Filipino families, casually called chinoys, practice a number of rituals whenever a loved one passes away. Most of these practices are derived from Chinese tradition and Buddhism with a slight incorporation of other religions. Traditional Chinese practices involve the burning of paper versions of material goods such as houses, cars, helicopters, yachts, and money, so that the deceased will be able to enjoy such in the afterlife. Loved ones are not also allowed to cut their locks for forty days and are encouraged to wear white from head to toe. The Buddhism aspect that is combined with these customs would be the burning of the incense and the offering of fruits as a sign of respect to the dead. The factor of other religions highly depends on the religion of the deceased and his/her loved one. If he/she is a Catholic/Protestant, then there would be a mass/sermon held during his/her funeral.[33]

Other practices[edit]

Superstitious beliefs surrounding death entail the sudden appearance of certain animals, particularly those black in color.[7] Examples are: the appearance of a lingering black butterfly around an individual is an omen that a person's next of kin has died; a sick person heading toward hospital who sees a black-hued cat will not survive their condition; seeing an owl near the home of a sick individual signifies the infirm's imminent death.[8]

Other beliefs pertaining to death are related to dreams,[7] dining etiquette, odors,[7] unusual shapes of certain objects, children, and odd numbers. Examples of these types are: not allowing family members to leave the home until used utensils have been cleansed (it is believed a family member may pass away if this habit is not followed), consuming sour fruit in the evenings (to avoid early parental demise), avoiding taking photographs of three persons together (to avoid the early death of the individual placed in the middle), sudden scent of a burning candle – without a lit candle anywhere – hints that a relative just died, losing a tooth during a dream is an omen that a relative will soon die,[7] a headless shadow of an individual forewarns that that person will pass away soon, preventing all family members from viewing the face of a dead person at funerals (to prevent the ghost of the departed from visiting the family resulting in the death of every family member), and lifting children related to the deceased over caskets before the entombment (to hinder the ghost of the dead relative from visiting the children).[8]


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