WHAT IS SKY BURIAL?
Human beings are not immortal and when death knocks on the door of our lives, the souls leave the earth but the lifeless bodies remain. How we approach to handle the last vestige of the evidence of our life will depend on the culture we live in. In Tibet and in Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in China, they have a unique way of handling the deceased. Tibetan Buddhists follow the guidance of their death handbook, the Bardo Thodol, a guide to the stages of death and the pathway to reincarnation written in the 8th century CE. But this journey is for the soul, not for the body, which is just the soft shell we are encased in. Unlike the Christian traditions that many western nations have founded their death practices on, which speak of resurrection of the intact body, in Tibet the body is seen as part of nature’s cycle and not the human it once was.
During a Sky Burial, the corpse is given to the creatures of the sky – the vultures – in a ritual called jhator. If a Tibetan dies, the corpse is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and placed in a corner of the house for three or five days, during which monks or lamas are asked to read the scripture aloud so that the souls can be released from purgatory. Family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for ascension of souls into heaven. The Family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for ascension of souls into heaven and will choose a lucky day and ask the body carrier to carry the body away to the celestial burial platform. On the day before the burial, the family members take off the clothes of the dead and fix the corpse in a fetal position. Specifically, the body is bent into a sitting position, with the head against the knees.
In smaller villages, the corpse is carried by a friend or family member to an area where it is left exposed for scavengers to eat. In larger communities, there are lama burial masters or rogyapa, basically the Tibetan equivalent of a grave digger – but instead of digging graves, their job is to butcher corpses. There is a designated site for the burial, high in the mountains, known as the dürtro, and once the corpse has arrived, the lama or the rogyapa begins breaking the body down. Juniper is burned to attract the vultures, and then the body is sliced and flayed, limbs removed and bones crushed, so that when the vultures begin their feast they are able to consume the entire corpse, leaving nothing behind to rot. What to another culture would be seen as a desecration or even a psychotic act, in Tibet is a practice that is sacred and essential. When you think about how this works – the dead body given as an offering to creatures that will be nourished by it, who will consume it and use it to soar high above the Himalayas – the practice of buying a fancy, embossed and silk-lined casket to rot in, useless to the world around you, seems wasteful and ridiculous.
There are a lot of taboos in the process of the burial. Strangers are not allowed to attend the ceremony for Tibetans believe it will bring negative efforts to the ascending of the souls. So visitors should respect this custom and keep away from such occasions unless they are specifically given permission to witness the ritual. The family members are also not allowed to be present at the burial site.
EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT
Place of Sky Burial : Litang is a county of the traditional Kham Region of Eastern Tibet, currently located in the southwest of Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, western Sichuan province, People’s Republic of China. Several famous Buddhist figures were born here and I went to visit the house of the 7th Dalai Lama.
Juan, Timo, Hannah and I were chatting at our guesthouse in Litang when they suddenly announced that they will be going to witness a sky burial early next morning. I have never heard of sky burial before that and they enlightened me by telling me that dead people are cut up and fed to the vultures. Apparently, visitors are allowed to witness a sky burial and Litang, being such a small town, the inhabitants know when there is a death in town. Juan described the ritual and it sounded gruesome and intriguing but curiosity got the better of me. We were told to take a taxi to the place where the burial will be held. Our guesthouse’s owner wrote the place on the a piece of paper and before 7 am the next morning, we arrived at a barren mountainous place. The early morning light was just breaking through and it was very cold. It was just the four of us and we had our little breakfast while waiting. Half an hour later two taxi drew up and we were joined by two Japanese and two French tourists.
Then we saw vultures started to circle around a certain area. It was as if they knew that they are in for a meal.
In a twinkling of an eye, there were easily more than 70 vultures settled down and waited patiently for their coming meal.
Soon after, a van and a couple of cars arrived and a body wrapped in white cloth was taken out and laid on the ground.
We stood quite a distance away as this is a private ceremony and visitors are not allowed to go near. The procedure is also too gruesome and disturbing to watch it at close quarters.
The cutting of the body is done by the leading rogyapa (body breaker). He cut up the body neatly with a cleaver under the watchful eyes of his assistants who gathered around him and the dead body. Their purpose is to make sure that the vultures do not attack the body prematurely.
Once the vultures were allowed to approach the body, it was only a few minutes of frenzy feeding and all that was left was bits of flesh and bones. The assistant then shooed away the vultures away with long soft sticks from the remnants of the body.
The rogyapa then used a small axe chop the remaining bones and flesh into a pulp. The process took quite a long time. The pulp is then mixed with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter or milk). The created mixture is then thrown to the vultures to eat.
Many would think that this way of handling the demise of human being is inhumane, barbaric and senseless. But as I stood there watching the whole ritual, I was not at all shocked or repulsed by it. In fact, when one dies, the soul leaves the body and it became an empty shell. The benefits – the vultures are fed, no rotting bodies buried under the ground, no body ashes stored in urns taking up spaces in buildings which can be used for other purposes.
”On the face of it, sky burial may seem a bit gruesome, but in fact it is a highly ecological method of disposing of the dead,” wrote Alec Le Sueur, a Briton who recorded his adventures in a book about living in Tibet for five years in early 1990’s. ”What better way for the body to be returned to earth than directly as vulture droppings?”