Skip to content

La Muerte or Santa Muerte in the Philippines?

semanasanta_logo.jpg This is part of my Semana Santa series where I feature rituals and traditions observed in certain places during this solemn week in the Catholic calendar. Click on the image at the right to check the rest of the articles.

The image of the Santa Muerte (Holy Death) as part of the lenten procession
Detail of the head, sans some teeth. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

The first time I heard about it, I was dumbfounded that I just have to go and peek. No, take pictures and see for myself, one of the country’s rarest images in the lenten procession. What’s more, its antique and have the head and hands made of ivory.

The Santa Muerte is a popular cult in Mexico with a growing number of devotees. Even Time and the National Geographic magazine covered this phenomenon. In the country, death has always been a part of Catholicism and syncretic versions of it but as part of the lenten procession? It’s quite rare. But I should clarify. This lenten image is La Muerte and in no way related to the Mexican cult. According to this blogpost, which shed’s light on this practice in the Philippines, a good write, by the way, has something to do with the memento mori (remember death) which reminds man of his mortality.

Detail of the ivory hand

The La Muerte image

Wooden skeleton feet and legs. CLICK TO ENLARGE

I’ve seen an old picture of a procession in Calasiao, Pangasinan where a man was holding an effigy of death. A friend also mentioned that he saw in one of the Luzon towns Death sitting on top of a globe during lent. The blogpost link also mentions some municipalities in Bicol.

The one in the Visayas is part of the lenten ensemble ordered by a parish priest in the 19th century, all having a head and pair of hands made from ivory standing around 4 feet in height. These images were distributed to the various prominent families of that time as caretakers. Currently, one family sold theirs and according to some townsfolk, its the reason why they are having a string of bad luck.

I was also told by the caretaker of the La Muerte image that in the Philippines, Iloilo had the other one but was sold to a collector leaving this the only one in a lenten paso. I visited the house of the caretaker and inspected the image where it was put, robed, crowned and standing regal.

The image’s head of ivory is just stunning. The details, the cranium’s sutures but with some teeth remaining. The individual bones of the hands are just gorgeous. Underneath the velvety robe is a skeleton made from wood. Truly, one of a kind piece that should remain in that town.

7 thoughts on “La Muerte or Santa Muerte in the Philippines?”

  1. Maghimaya ka Maria

    Yes I have seen this since my family are from that town. I was scared before. I never thought it was ivory!

  2. Cailoe Monster

    kelan yung event na toh? i hope i can go to this event. and im hoping to get one of those santa muerte ..

  3. dex

    Im drop jaw …truly rare item more power!

  4. disqus_cjCNYx7FPo

    Hi Estan, I am making a new book… a Survey of Holy Week Processions in the Philippines…. I would like to ask you to join the project… i hope we could meet and discuss further the project… you can contact me at I hope any burned bridges for the mis communication in 2009 would have been buried under the hatchet. Your kin eye for details and personal approach suits our anthropological and sociological attack on Lenten celebration here in the Philippines.

    With respect and full admiration on your works,

    Joel de Leon

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.