Cemetery Fires in the Mountains of the Philippines

In the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic island nation in the Southeast Asia Pacific region, ‘All Saints Day’ or ‘All Souls Day’ is a commemorative day celebrated on the 1st of November each year. It celebrates all the Catholic saints that do not have special commemorative days of their own. In celebrating this day, members of each community gather in their local cemetery to light candles at sunset and place them upon the graves of friends and relatives.

The small town of Sagada in the Mountain Provence of Luzon, approximately 275km north of Manila and known for its traditional hanging coffins, celebrates All Saints Day a little differently than the rest of the Philippines. On the 1st of November 2014, I had the opportunity to witness this community celebrate All Saints Day in their own unique and somewhat intense manner where the common tradition of lighting candles has been adapted into lighting small bonfires on each of the graves, resulting in a bright and smoky experience that lights up the entire cemetery.

“The fires are a way of providing light and warmth to the souls here”

Initially, I was not aware of this event as I was only spending a week in Sagada by chance. I spoke with Alex, 43, a local of Sagada who ran the guesthouse I was staying in who informed me of the ceremony. He suggested I attend, as it was a very special day in Sagada and not something you could witness anytime like the famous hanging coffins or Sumauging caves. Alex was paying respect with his family to his deceased grandfather who was killed by invading Japanese soldiers in the area during World War 2. Alex told me the purpose of these fires was to provide light for the deceased; “The fires are a way of providing light and warmth to the souls here” Alex informed me.

The ceremony began in the nearby Church of Saint Mary the Virgin where the priest blessed the piles of saleng (pine twigs) and read out the names of the deceased. This took some time. Afterwards, a large number of locals and tourists moved from the Church and gathered in the cemetery with saleng and began piling it at the foot of the graves, ready to be lit. Many locals were speaking with friends and family while awaiting the Priest to begin his sermon.

The local Catholic priest performed a sermon in the local language, Kankana-ey, at the altar in the centre of the cemetery before lighting a holy fire to which the community brought a piece of their firewood to be lit and returned it to their ancestors graves. This process was done very quickly and within a few minutes the entire cemetery was alight with children running between the graves and fires in excitement.

“I felt the hairs on my arm become singed when passing narrowly between two graves”

It didn’t take long to start feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the heat and the smoke and at one point I felt the hairs on my arm become singed when passing narrowly between two graves. I even witnessed a tourists camera bag catch alight as he stood too close to one of the fires. Although at times the intensity of this experience felt overwhelming, I noticed calmness among those participating and in particular noticed the children that were curiously stoking the fires while playing and scattering between the graves.

One notable observation I had while navigating the burning cemetery was that this occasion was not one of mourning or grief — the excitement and closeness of the community was evident.

At this point I noticed many people wearing scarves around their faces and other face-masks to prevent smoke and ash inhalation. A police officer patrolled the fiery graves with a gas mask on to which many locals laughed at for his caution.

“Society is bound to the souls of their ancestors”

This uniquely intense tradition in Sagada dates back to the early 1900’s and is an amalgamation of traditions from Christian Church rites introduced by American missionaries and Mountain Provence mythology. “Saleng was initially used because there were no available candles in the area, this eventually just became tradition for our community.” Alex said. The indigenous Igorot people of the Mountain Provence believe that society is bound to the souls of their ancestors, which is why this commemoration of the deceased is highly respected in the community.

I noticed many people sharing pieces of burning saleng from their fires and placing them on graves that were not already lit. I later discovered that the relatives of some of the deceased were not there to pay their respect and so others would make sure no grave went unlit. Alex told me this was to prevent these souls from complaining and also done out of kindness so that no grave missed out.

This tradition of lighting fires for the dead is known as Panag-apoy, which literally translates into “to produce fire.” Although this originally was not a traditional way of honouring the deceased in Igorot culture prior to the influences of Christianity in the area at the start of the 20th century.

“The Igorot people traditionally believed that the souls of the deceased were always with them yet existent in another dimension”

In pre-Christian Igorot culture the deceased were honoured much more often than one day a year in just about every special occasion such as weddings, funerals, feasts etc. with offerings of food or sacrificed animals known as “Menkanyaw.” The Igorot people traditionally believed that the souls of the deceased were always with them yet existent in another dimension. Today the combination of this traditional Igorot spirituality and the more recent Christian influences are evident and work in a seemingly harmonious style that best represents Sagada society and how it has been shaped through its vibrant history.

“We remember our ancestors every day, but today we feel much closer than any other day of the year”

Finally, well after the sun had set and the fires were reduced to coal and smoke, I wandered around the cemetery observing the final stages of the ceremony as people cleaned their ancestor’s graves of the soot and swept away the debris. Many of the community were still talking while some starred at the graves of their friends and family while the last few coals glowed, quietly remembering them. I spoke to a few of the remaining locals that were kind enough to to speak about the souls that they were lighting fires for; “We remember our ancestors every day, but today we feel much closer than any other day of the year, that is true for me anyway” told Caroline, 29, who works at the local hospital.

At about 9pm, after the majority of people had left and the fire fighters surveyed the area, I returned with Alex Biktur’s family back to the guesthouse and was invited to partake in a traditional feast with them that included barbecued chicken and pork with rice as well as sweet rice and cake for dessert. Alex told me this was part of the tradition on All Saints Day – to have a feast with family and friends after providing light for the souls of their deceased.

The Sagada community conducts this ceremony on the 1st of November each year and is open to the public. Although over the years the number of tourists at this event has increased, so too has the presence of local firefighters and police officers to monitor the ceremony. I highly recommend visiting if you are in the area around this time of year as it was a truly exciting spiritual experience.

Joshua Roach, 2014.