The Tibetan Sky Burial

We love the Tibetans, a race showcasing profound understanding of mortal and life beyond death. In a previous piece we spoke about the Tibetan bowl, we still encounter that experience, but today we shall talk about something that may be tough to understand by many, the Tibetan funeral process.

The most common methods for deceased bodies after death is burial and cremation. While the Zoroastrians have a slightly different method, where the body is fed to the birds which is considered a good deed and the bones are discarded in a well. The Tibetan Sky Burial is somewhat similar, lets take a look at how it works.

Majority of Tibetans adhere to Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation, hence there is no need to preserve the body, as the body is only a vessel. Once a person dies the vessel is empty, the Birds may eat it, or nature may let it decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply the disposal of the remains.

The corpse is cut into small pieces and placed on a mountaintop to feed the birds of prey, in Tibetan the practice is known as jhator, that literally means, “giving alms to the birds.” As much of Tibet the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and with fuel and timber scarce, a sky burial is often more practical than cremation.

Vultures fighting over the flesh
Vultures fighting over the flesh

The government of the People’s Republic of China, which has forcibly occupied Tibet since 1950, prohibited the practice that they consider barbaric in the 1960s. They started to allow it again in the 1980s, perhaps after realizing they would save on resources via the Sky Burials.

A traditional jhator is performed in specified locations in Tibet, the Drigung Monastery is one of the three most important jhator sites. The procedure takes place on a large flat rock long used for the purpose and is always higher than its surroundings. Relatives may remain nearby during the jhator that usually takes place at dawn.

Prior to the procedure, monks may chant mantra around the body and burn juniper incense. The work of disassembling of the body may be done by a monk, or, more commonly, by rogyapas (“body-breakers”).

I am now going to revert to a live witness to a Tibetan Sky-Burial by Pamela Logan,

Men in long white aprons come out, and unwrap the corpse, which is naked, stiff, and swollen. The men hold huge cleavers, which are in a few strokes whetted to razor sharpness on nearby rocks. The bright sun and clear blue sky diffuse somewhat my ominous feeling. The coroners themselves, are not heavy or ceremonial, but completely businesslike as they chat amongst themselves, and prepare to start.

Tibetans believe that, more important than the body, is the spirit of the deceased. Following death, the body should not be touched for three days, except possibly at the crown of the head, through which the consciousness, or namshe, exits. Lamas guide the spirit in a series of prayers that last for seven weeks, as the person makes their way through the bardo–intermediate states that precede rebirth.

As the first cut is made, the vultures crowd closer; but three men with long sticks wave them away. Within a few minutes the dead man’s organs are removed and set aside for later, separate disposal. The vultures try to move in and are prevented by waving sticks and shouts. Then, the cutters give a signal and the men all simultaneously fall back.

The flock rushes in, covering the body completely, their heads disappearing as they bend down to tear away bits of flesh. They are enormous birds, with wings spanning more than 2 meters, top-feathers of dirty white, and huge gray-brown backs. Their heads are virtually featherless, so as not to impede the bird when reaching into a body to feed.

Crushing the bones

For thirteen minutes the vultures are in a feeding frenzy. The only sound is tearing flesh and chittering as they compete for the best bits. The birds are gradually sated, and some take to the air, their huge wings sounding like steam locomotives as they flap overhead. Now the men pull out what remains of the corpse, only a bloody skeleton and shoo away the remaining birds. They take out huge mallets, and set to work pounding the bones. The men talk while they work, even laughing sometimes, for according to Tibetan belief the mortal remains are merely an empty vessel. The dead man’s spirit is gone, its fate to be decided by karma accumulated through all past lives.

The bones are soon reduced to splinters, mixed with barley flour and then thrown to crows and hawks, who have been waiting their turn. Remaining vultures grab slabs of softened gristle and greedily devour them. Half an hour later, the body has completely disappeared. The men leave also, their day’s work finished. Soon, the hilltop is restored to serenity. I think of the man whose flesh is now soaring over the mountains, and decide that, if I happen to die on the high plateau, I wouldn’t mind following him.

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