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Ancient hanging coffins can be found on the side of cliffs in China's 'sky graveyards'

While some are over hundreds of years old others are said to be from more than 3,000 years ago.

Ancient hanging coffins can be found on the side of cliffs in China's 'sky graveyards'
Cover Image Source: YouTube/Timeline - World History Documentaries

In some of the less-disturbed areas of the Guizhou province in southwestern China, one can spot eerily fascinating hanging coffins on the side of cliffs. An unusual type of funeral custom, these weathered wooden caskets are believed to be over hundreds of years old, according to CNN. Hanging as high as 100 feet above the ground, at least 30 caskets are anchored on limestone rock and filled with fragments of clothes, bones and ceramics on the outside and inside. One can reportedly even spot skulls poking out from these "sky graveyards."


Wong How Man, a Hong Kong-based explorer, has been fascinated by these unique coffins for nearly 30 years and is looking to learn more about the unusual burial custom. He first spotted several groups of coffins in 1985. The caskets were perched 90 meters (300 feet) high on a cliff face in southern Sichuan, to the north of Guizhou. "At first, it was simply how the hell did they get there and then I couldn't stop thinking about why," he shared. "And there're so many theories."


Over the years, more coffins have been found in remote valleys to the south of the Yangtze River in Central China. The oldest coffins are said to be over 3,000 years old and can be found in the eastern province of Fujian. In 2015, 131 hanging coffins were discovered in the central province of Hubei as well. The People's Daily newspaper noted that "experts haven't figured out how ancient people managed to transport the coffin, body and funeral objects—together weighing hundreds of kilograms—to the cliff caves."

Cover Image Source: YouTube | Timeline - World History Documentaries
Image Source: YouTube | Timeline - World History Documentaries

What could the meaning of these customs reveal? Not much is known about the ancient burial ritual but there are many theories about the same. According to, the Yuan dynasty official, Li Jing, shared his insights in his Brief Chronicles of Yunnan. "Coffins set high are considered auspicious. The higher they are the more propitious for the dead. And those whose coffins fell to the ground sooner were considered to be more fortunate," he is said to have written. This custom is tied to the Bo people who were a rebellious minority tribe. They belonged to the border between today's southern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan provinces.

Image Source: YouTube | Timeline
Image Source: YouTube | Timeline

For now, researchers are keener on preserving these unique creations of the past. "Our short-term goal is to save them and to keep them up there. The long-term goal is to answer the questions [of] why and how they got up there," said Wong How Man, according to LA Times. The Hong Kong-based China Exploration and Research Society has helped strengthen and restore the coffins they considered most prone to falling.


People from the past have chosen different approaches to bury the dead. Mongolians left their dead in the wild, open-air for animals to feed on. When the carcass was wiped clean, it was considered a good omen for the person who died. In Tibet, the dead are cut into pieces and thrown in the air for birds to eat in an attempt to facilitate reincarnation. Perhaps the most well-known in history is the burial of Egyptians who are known for their mummies.  


As for China's hanging coffins, scholar Chen Mingfang believes that the Bo buried their dead on the cliffs not to send their souls to heaven but perhaps to protect them from being devoured by wild animals. She hopes the coffins will continue to survive the test of time. "Human destruction is their No. 1 enemy," Chen said. "They've survived thousands of years. But if we don't do more to preserve them, in the next 100 years, they could all be gone."


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