Death is not the end.
The Ibaloys of Benguet know it well. Hailing from mountains untarnished by the conversion to Christianity under the Spanish colonial rule, the Ibaloys have maintained their indigenous culture and spiritual beliefs well throughout the centuries. Contrary to foreign ideologies, they do not recognize the concept of heaven and hell, nor the reincarnation of a spirit into its next life. Instead, they believe in the aponan—a place where their ancestors’ spirits gather and where each soul strives to rest peacefully after death.
Springing from this belief, the living come together to pray, to dance, to chant, and to offer gifts to the spirits and divinities, to guide and to ensure the smooth journey of a deceased soul to its ancestors’ realm. In turn, the dead ask the kabunian—the Ibaloy divinities—to bestow blessings upon their living relatives. Although some may perceive the traditions meticulous, the Ibaloys spare no small effort in their continuance as these rituals play a great deal into their identity as indigenous people.
An enduring passage
The Ibaloys scattered throughout Benguet practice different versions of the mortuary rites, but the objective remains the same: to guarantee that the deceased joins the community of spirits. Cofounder of the Igorota Foundation Rosella Camte-Bahni prefaces these rituals by citing Anthony van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage. “The rites of passage [consist of] the ritual for separation, ritual for transition, and ritual for incorporation,” she compares to the Ibaloys’ traditions for the dead.
The aremag—the wake—constitutes the first stage of the rituals. It takes place over the course of four to nine days; the older the deceased, the longer the wake. Throughout the aremag, the family of the deceased is advised by a ritual director and a mambonong, the traditional Ibaloy priest. The body then undergoes a ceremonial washing and is wrapped with a blanket specific to a person’s walk of life—the all white shindi blanket for the rich, while the underprivileged either use the kolebaw or sapey. The body is finally placed inside a casket carved out of a pine tree.
Once the body is inside the casket, the daily butchering of pigs commences. Camte-Bahni explains that there are specific days when the slaughtered pig is used to feed the community and days when it is solely offered to the spirits. “When the spirit of the person arrives [at] their destination, it is believed that they should be bringing along provisions [with] them…like food, clothing, drinks, and animals,” she supplies.
Aside from these provisions, neighbors and other members of the community also customarily donate money or opo to the family of the deceased. Jazil Tamang, an Ibaloy of Itogon, Benguet, explains, “We believe that the person who just died would give the [opo] to our [other] deceased [relatives].” The cash donations would also be used by the family for funeral expenses. “The mambonong must say a bonong prayer directed to the spirit of [the] deceased [and disclose] the amount collected and [what] the family would use the money for,” she furthers.
Eight days after the burial, the family performs the kapi ni bangkilay. In the kapi ritual, two more pigs are slaughtered and offered on top of the bangkilay, an altar table where a full meal is served for the deceased spirit and the living. Through the bangkilay, the dead are invited to feast with their living family and community. “I think that’s the beautiful part of the kapi ni bangkilay,” Camte-Bahni expresses. “Even if physically, they are gone, [but] spiritually, they can still be present.”
But even after the aremag and kapi, the relationship between the living and the dead is not severed. The spirit of the deceased may still visit its family through their dreams or by infliction of an illness upon them. “When that happens, [it means that] the spirit of [the] deceased [wants] to ask something from us,” Tamang discusses. In such cases, the family conducts a healing ritual. They may be advised by a mansi-bok, their traditional consultant for such cases, to exhume and to clean the remains and to conduct a subsequent funeral—the kesheng ja waray batbat ritual, which may take place over the course of several years.
Recalling the death of her parents, Camte-Bahni takes heart in knowing she continuously fulfills her obligation as their daughter. “The rituals show my love for my parents and consoled me knowing that they are at peace in the afterlife,” she asserts. But carrying out these mortuary practices have not only allowed Camte-Bahni to process her grief; she is reminded of the strong communal orientation she grew up with. “Every time there is a ritual, that sense of community [is strengthened] because of people helping out the host [family],” she conveys. In effect, the support she receives from her community catalyzes the deepening of her spirituality and cultural identity.
For some, indigenous culture may be seen as something that contradicts the Christian faith—but both Tamang and Camte-Bahni emphasize that this does not have to be the case. “From [a] Christian perspective, I heard from our elders that our culture and traditions are given or made by God because it was present from a long time ago,” Tamang imparts. As practicing Christians, both believe that the Ibaloy rituals complement their indigenous and Christian spirituality.
Meanwhile, Camte-Bahni considers that the objectives of the Christian faith and indigenous practices somehow converge. Doubling down on the glaring similarities of the indigenous culture and Christian practices, she cites shared symbolisms and commonly conveyed meanings, such as the importance of fire during a funeral. Further, she reiterates that “the indigenous belief is anchored on a spirituality that recognizes the presence of God.”
Unfortunately, in a country where Christianity remains as the most highly-practiced religion, indigenous culture is no stranger to preconceived notions. “If you are questioning our culture and traditions, it’s like you are questioning God because we believe that these rituals are also given by Him,” Tamang quotes one of her elders. Camte-Bahni is also quick to refute the claim that the indigenous practices are pagan, lamenting that this designation has been a constant source of conflict among community members.
Given the complex and meaningful nature of these traditions, it has always been challenging for Ibaloys to explain the purpose of such rites. Nevertheless, Tamang and Camte-Bahni maintain that it is important for outsiders to respect their culture and tradition, in the same manner that they respect Christian practices. “The Church should be able to acknowledge and [to] recognize the presence of cultural practices [and indigenous spirituality] in the city and [in] the province,” Camte-Bahni hopes.
Gone but not forgotten
Performing these Ibaloy rituals means providing the utmost care for the dead while simultaneously reflecting how they continuously revive their culture and traditions. “We want our deceased family or ancestors to guide and [to] help us, [and for] younger generations to take care of us even if we are already dead,” Tamang wishes. “It is our inheritance from our ancestors that we need to pass on to the younger generation.”
While continuing observance of these rituals are also integral in preserving their identity, both Ibaloys also acknowledge that it fosters a sense of community. These practices emphasize how the Ibaloys value the relationship between each generation, as Camte-Bahni reminds, “The relationship still continues between the living and the dead [through the rituals].” This reassures her knowing that the rituals were her obligation to attain her parents’ goals in the afterlife, “Performing the necessary rituals made me feel confident that I did my role for their benefit, thus enabling me to deal with my grief.”
The death of a loved one is not the end—especially not for the Ibaloys. The living and the dead remain connected through the mortuary and healing rituals, ensuring each other’s safety and prosperity as they exist in different realms. And although they grieve—knowing that grief is love with no place to go—the Ibaloys find they can sustain that love through their practices.