Children doing the agkarrarwa, or the taking of food on behalf of the spirits. Photo: Bernard Guerrero

The 2017 animated movie Coco is set during the Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, in Mexico. It portrays a celebration that is both solemn and jovial. It is meant to remember and honor the departed ones as well as to provide a form of neighborhood entertainment.

The practice is so important and distinct that it was included in 2008 in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

While the Dia de Muertos is widely observed throughout Mexico, there is a town in the Philippines that practices something remarkably similar.

The beauty of the town of Paoay in Ilocos Norte province is that its culture is not only manifested in its grand World Heritage-listed Church of St Augustine. It is also apparent in its living and enduring traditions.

While the town is famed for its rare Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) celebration called Guling-Guling, another unique ritual held every November 1 called Tumba is less known. Tumba means “tomb” in Spanish, and while there are no records to show when or why it started, Tumba is largely believed among locals to be at least 200 years old.

It may trace its origin back to its older counterpart in Mexico, from where the tradition found its way to and eventually gained popularity in Paoay during the Spanish colonial period.

Nowhere in the Philippines can one find something similar that is both traditional and living, and that is consistently being carried out year after year.

As to why this is only being done in Paoay, no one can precisely tell. It can be hypothesized, however, that an earlier pagan practice found relevance in Christianized Paoay in the same way that a pre-Christian Mardi Gras-type celebration became subsumed in the town’s local Lenten season ceremonies.

The folk celebration starts to shape up on the day before November 1 when the people work together voluntarily erecting makeshift huts. In the older days, each barangay of Paoay had these huts, but now several barangays clustered together to have a shared one.

Materials used in making these structures are bamboo, hay, palm fronds, and other indigenous materials. Inside, attention is immediately drawn toward the center where a catafalque mantled with a dark-shade loom-woven inabel cloth is placed.

It contains a generous spread of offerings called umras contributed by residents of the barangay, and it always must include eggs, grilled fish, tirucas, some dishes typical of the northern Philippines, home-made alcoholic beverages, rolled tobaccos and even betel-nut chews. The most distinct of these offerings is a rice cake called baduya, which is fried in pork lard and is in essence only produced for this occasion. 

Women performing prayers and songs before a catafalque. Photo: Bernard Guerrero

Images of saints, crosses, and even pictures of the departed ones are also put on display, making the whole installation akin to an altar. Mats are strewn on the ground for the elderly women of the community to sit on in the evening to perform prayers and chants.

Candles are lit inside and sometimes an open fireplace called atong can also be spotted outside although the making of an atong on that day is a more recent practice. The men usually stay and stand on guard outside, too. There is also the custom of lighting candles under fruit-bearing trees which are meant to guide the spirits toward the hut so they can partake on the offerings prepared.

Kids can take some of the food in an act called agkararrua (meaning “to be done on behalf of the spirits”).

Compared with the practice in Mexico, however, the Tumba is more communal than personal. It is also more subtle as there are no decorated skulls or calaveras, no elaborate floral arrangements, and no frolicking inside a hut at all.   

Women play a lead role in the observance of the Tumba, from preparing the offerings to manning the huts while leading the prayers. These prayers start as early at 6pm after everyone has made visits to the cemetery, and last until midnight.

The philosophy behind the Tumba is simple. It is the special space and time where the community collectively pays respect to those who have left them and whose names they can no longer remember or no longer know. In a way, it is a form of ancestor worship meant for those who have been forgotten but not necessarily ignored. The practice illustrates a strong connection of the people to their past. 

The practice of Tumba has changed little over time and it thrives even in the absence of tourist patronage. There are, however, threats that could undermine it. The pressure to reinvent it into something that appeals to the newer generation more, like in cases where the huts had to be made into horror houses instead, is regrettable.

As the only town in Southeast Asia’s sole predominantly Christian nation to have this intangible heritage, it is imperative that the practice, as well as its noble meaning, is not to be tampered with. Some people from Paoay who migrated to some parts of Zambales province in the 18oos even brought the Tumba tradition with them there.

While the pandemic prohibits the celebration this year, it has already been recommended to the town officials of Paoay that at least one Tumba hut should still be set up so as not to break the chain of this uninterrupted age-old tradition. 

Bernard Guerrero

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a cultural worker from the Philippines. He writes and delivers talks about the care and management of built heritage, cultural tourism, and traveling around Asia. Also, he enjoys history, architecture, forgotten spaces and relics, as well as World Heritage Sites.