Vintas and Death: The Old Badjao Cemetery of Santa Cruz Island

The Boat and the Dead Travelers - Santa Cruz Island, Zamboanga City

As Santa Cruz Island is known for its pinkish-white beach, a lot doesn’t even know that it has one place that time and the elements have forgotten. For the culturally-inclined, this is the old Badjao Cemetery. For the paranormal and ghost hunters, this is where the dead were buried.

Vintas, travelers and tubaos

Just a few meters walk east of the main beach “resort” of Santa Cruz Island, the old and abandoned cemetery is hidden beneath the bushes, balete (banyan) and calachuchi (frangipani) trees. I was accompanied by Manong Alsin Alptan, a Tausug resident and CAFGU of the island, since going alone isn’t recommended (and you might get yourself lost actually). The cemetery itself is hard to find either.

The Smiling Wooden Doll

And another wooden doll

When we reached the place, the place was full of tombstones. I asked permission to the “spirits” to let me take some photos of it (I may be a city dweller but I still adhere to superstitions of the locals). What is unique here is that the relatives of the departed usually decorate the tombs with carved wooden boats (or vintas) and wooden dolls above the tomb. The dolls then are dressed up either by a tubao (head bandana of the Moro peoples) or a putong or songkok. For women, the Badjaos usually bury mirrors, combs or any item that is associated with women;s household. The Sama Badjaos really live up to their name as the “sea gypsies,” still carrying on the tradition of seafaring, even onto their deaths. The journey to afterlife for the Badjao is still by boat.

The vinta and the purple lona

Yet according to manong Alsin, the city government has already advised the Badjao to stop burying their dead here a few years back, since the city would be developing the place for tourism. Hence, the cemetery was abandoned. The Badjaos on the other hand, have a new cemetery—on the far end of the island.

Muslim tombstones in the Old Badjao Cemetery

The lone sailor

Since then, the cemetery fell into disrepair. Only a few relatives come by and clean up the tombs of their loved ones. The rest were forgotten. Yearly still, they come and replace the vintas and the wooden dolls. Yet despite these traditions, the Sama Badjao still bury their dead as per Islamic custom. Syncretism manifested.

The old Badjao Cemetery-rotting away

Till Death do they part

Personally, it was an introduction to another culture. This was my first time visiting a Muslim cemetery. It was an enriching journey of appreciation. Santa Cruz Island doesn’t have only natural beauty, but also cultural significance for the Moro Sama Badjao people.

The old Sama Badjao cemetery can be found here:

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November 2011
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