Introduction to Sky Burial

The birds are already circling as the man lays the dead woman out on the stones. Naked and stiff, the corpse is as cold as the surrounding landscape and her eyes as gray as the clouds that haunt the looming Himalayan peaks. The ritual plays out in staggering isolation; high on the Tibetan plateau and amid some of the least explored wilderness on Earth.

The man draws his flaying knife and tests its sharpness with his thumb. Then he sets to work.

With deep, determined slices, he separates hair from scalp, then limbs from torso and flesh from bone. Ancient custom animates each movement, as he steadily reduces the corpse to mere fragments in the hallowed clearing. Vultures already surround him in huddled, black masses. Overhead, dozens more wind down the last of their spiral descent, tracing invisible circles in the air, and land at last to feast.

Indifferent to the human in their midst, the birds tear into the meal with ravenous enthusiasm. Meanwhile the man, a rogyapa, or "breaker of bodies," calmly sets aside his blade and grabs a hammer to pulverize the remaining bones.

Known as sky burial or celestial burial to outsiders, this is the Tibetan practice of jhator, or the giving of alms to birds, in which the body of the deceased is dismantled to facilitate faster and more thorough consumption by vultures. To foreign eyes, this unique funeral rite may seem callous or morbid. Yet within the spiritual and geographic contexts of Tibetan culture, it is the perfect fate for the body humans leave behind in death.

In this article, we'll investigate the process of sky burial and why in a world so concerned with preserving, incinerating and burying its corpses, the people of isolated Tibet choose to give their departed up to the creatures of the air.

History of Tibetan Sky Burial

Humans have a complex relationship with death, and as we'll see in the pages ahead, the Tibetan people are no exception. First, let's strip away the layers of religion and myth surrounding sky burial and examine geography's role.

The Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) occupies roughly 471,700 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of Central Asia to the northeast of India. Encompassing some of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Mountains and the least explored regions on the planet, the average altitude for a Tibetan settlement is roughly 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level [source: Beall]. To put that in perspective, Leadville, Colo., ranks as the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet (3,094 meters).

Of course, there's far more to Tibet's geography than mountaintops. Subtropical Eastern Tibet hosts lush forests, surging rivers and yawning gorges, but it's the region's western landscapes that so enthrall outsiders. Here, the Tibetan plateau stands as a kind of high-altitude desert swept by chilling wind. It's the highest ecosystem on Earth, a place where sky burial is perfectly logical.

After all, where should Tibetans bury their dead when much of the ground is rocky or frozen, and soil is at a premium? With what fuel should they cremate their dead when wood is so scarce? Meanwhile, carrion-hungry lammergeiers and other vultures haunt the air overhead. Wolves roam the distance. The answer presents itself.

Old and new (particularly green) burial practices allow a corpse to decompose in the ground, providing sustenance to countless organisms in the soil. The energy of a departed being passes onto an entire host of living ones. Jhator turns this act skyward, both feeding aerial scavengers and disposing of a corpse in a single event. The ritual fits snugly with Tibetan Buddhism's emphasis on the interconnectedness of human beings with the environment.

But there's far more to death and funeral rites than mere waste elimination.

Tibetan Sky Burial Meaning

No understanding of sky burial is complete without a glimpse into the spiritual heart of Tibet. While the rite of jhator may seem callous in regard to mortality, Tibetan Buddhists are deeply concerned with the reality of death.

Recorded Tibetan history reaches back 2,300 years to a pre-Buddhist age ruled by warriors, shamans and a line of kings said to have descended from the sky on a magical ladder. The region's early Bön religion was animistic; it viewed nonhumans as spiritual beings. While sky burial was not in vogue during the days of the original Tibetan kings, the holiness of sky and birds was already present.

To this day, the vulture is revered as a sacred creature in Tibet. It is no ghoulish scavenger, but rather a "holy eagle" or even a dakini, a feminine sky spirit. It's certainly a view that many cultures have difficulty fathoming. In fact, when a Chinese soldier shot a vulture in the late '90s, local Tibetans pelted the gunman with stones [source: Faison].

But even if outsiders come to see sky burial as an offering made to some rather holy birds, many find a certain callousness in chopping up the dead as food for scavengers. That's largely because other religions and burial traditions continue to emphasize the link between the corpse that is and the person who was. For the ancient Egyptians and many contemporary Christian sects, the spirit of the departed is thought to return eventually to its body.

Tibetan Buddhists, however, believe that the corpse is nothing but a discarded shell. While the body may lie still upon the deathbed, the spirit of the deceased has already moved on, through death and toward a new incarnation.

As we'll discuss next, this view of death as a transitory phase in a person's existence is a driving force for the spirit of the Tibetan people.

Tibetan Buddhism and Death

Up until the 20th century, virtually the only application of the wheel in Tibetan culture was the use of mani, or prayer, wheels in spiritual blessings. This fact stresses the inward nature of the society, one that places a stronger emphasis on the exploration of consciousness and spirituality than the material world.

Make no mistake: Science has its place in Tibetan culture. The region's warrior kings of the seventh and eighth centuries imported a great deal of mathematics, medicine and architecture from neighboring areas. They also introduced Buddhism and its emphasis on karma, reincarnation and the middle path between extreme ideas.

Enter any Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and you'll see a representation of the Sipa Khorlo or Wheel of Life, which resembles a terrifying monster chewing on a pie graph. Also known as a Bhavacakra, the wheel is far more than mere decorative art, however. It illustrates Tibetan Buddhism's complex take on the endless cycle of death, life and rebirth known as samsara.

The wheel illustrates the six ways in which desire shackles us to the vicious circle of samsara and the six realms through which every life passes in an endless chain of death and rebirth. These six segments include three upper realms of humans, gods and demigods, as well as three lower ones of animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. Buddhists believe that a person remains bound to this chain until, through Buddha's noble eightfold path to enlightenment, he or she achieves Nirvana and rises above the wheel.

Look again to those lower realms of misery and longing, as well as to the great demon Yama, the Lord of Death who grips the wheel, and we see the crucial interplay of karma, merit and death. You can think of karma as a kind of psychic string that runs through all the forms that a life takes in samsara. You might have been a preta, or hungry ghost, in the last life, a human in this one and a goat in the next, but the same string of karma runs through all these forms. It continues in every form you've ever embodied. What's more, karma permits your actions in one incarnation to influence the next. As such, Tibetan Buddhists emphasize the accumulation of merit. Only through a lifetime of compassion and acts of devotion can they avoid incarnation into the lower realms.

This is why Yama is so terrifying to behold: He represents not only impermanence, but also the incessant danger associated with the death journey. According to eastern religion expert Robert Thurman, this aspect of Tibetan spirituality cannot be overstated. While he acknowledges that metaphorical interpretations of samsara's lower, hellish realms are not without merit, avoidance of these realms is a true motivator to the believer. Death in Tibet is far different from the nihilistic view of dying as a plunge into nothingness or an endless, peaceful slumber.

Death, as we'll learn next, is a serious journey for the Tibetan Budhhist soul.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

When anticipating an important journey, it pays to prepare. And since Tibetan Buddhists view death as the journey from this life to the next, they place tremendous importance on steps to ensure a safe voyage through the space betwixt death and rebirth -- a dreamlike intermediate state known as bardo.

If you were planning a trip to, say, Tibet, you'd probably pick up a guidebook written by people who have actually traveled there. When planning the ultimate trip, therefore, Tibetan Buddhists turn to the holy men who, through intense meditation, claim knowledge of both past lives and the death journey. A guide also exists in the form of the eighth-century text "Bardo Thodol" or "Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing." Westerners often call this work the "Tibetan Book of the Dead."

Through meditation and practice with the "Bardo Thodol," a Tibetan Buddhist ideally prepares for death far in advance. Think of it as a form of mental rehearsal, ensuring that the dying consciousness moves safely through eight stages of death to the death point, a confusing or enlightening state that may last for days. During this time, people attending the deceased can aid the departed spirit in its journey through readings from the sacred text.

As such, the "Bardo Thodol" lays out rituals for the dying and those tending to the dying to undertake before, during and following death. All told, the departed spirit is said to traverse a total of 49 days (or levels) of bardo on the way to the next incarnation.

As with much of Tibetan Buddhism, the focus on death is an inward one, concerned with the complex inner workings of human consciousness and the spiritual geography between death and rebirth. Outwardly, however, you're left with a corpse. On the following page, we'll cover the general practices of the sky burial itself.

The Rite of Sky Burial

There are essentially two forms of jhator in Tibet. First is the mode of sky burial practiced by remote villagers and nomads in which the body is abandoned. With no professional body breakers on hand, the dead are simply left exposed to the elements and whichever scavengers may find it.

When Westerners speak of sky burial, however, they're usually referring to the more elaborate, ritualized form of jhator, which we will discuss here.

Following death, the corpse of the departed is kept in a sitting position for 24 hours while a lama, or spiritual leader, recites the necessary prayers from the "Bardo Thodol." Two additional days pass before the body is ready for the next step. Family members make offerings at the monastery, and prayers are said for the dead. The body is blessed, cleaned and wrapped in white cloth. Finally, the corpse's spine is broken. This allows the body to be folded into a smaller bundle, as it will be carried to the sacred burial site, or dürtro, on the back of a close friend or family member.

The journey to the dürtro begins at dawn and can be quite a hike, as they're typically situated in elevated locations far from residential areas. Family members may follow along on this journey, chanting and playing double-sided hand drums, but keep their distance during the physical breaking of the body.

The actual sky burial falls to either a rogyapa, whose work is a more straightforward rendering of the corpse, or a lama burial master, who as a monk recites prayers during the ritual, in addition to breaking the body.

With the body positioned face down on stones, the rogyapa or burial master burns juniper incense to attract the vultures and sets to work with an axe or ritual flaying knife. He cuts off the hair first and then begins slicing up the body, eviscerating it and chopping off the limbs. As he flays meat from bone, he tosses it to the swarm of feathers and hungry beaks that huddle around them.

The rogyapa or burial master then pulverizes the remaining bones with a hammer, mixing them with tsampa, or barley flour, for easier consumption by the birds.

While family members don't witness the breaking of the body, Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to observe jhator in order to confront the realities of physical death without fear. After all, for them, the real trials of death are inner ones, while the fate of the outer body is a mere passing on of nutrients to other beings.

To drive this lesson home, monks sometimes save bone fragments for use in the manufacture of ritual bowls, teacups, musical instruments and other sacred items.

A Buddhist stupa on the grounds of the Samye Monastery in Tibet

Steve Allen/Photodisc/Getty Images

Other Tibetan Burial Customs

Sky burial continues to captivate foreign imaginations, but it's far from the only funeral rite practiced in modern Tibet. The following traditions thrive as well.

Burial: Yes, traditional ground burial, or inhumation, actually occurs in Tibet. The practice is rare, however, as Tibetans generally consider it an inferior custom. They reserve it for deaths caused by disease or unnatural causes.

Cliff burial: Found only in southern Tibet, this funeral rite sees the corpse embalmed with ghee (a form of clarified butter), salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket. Next, the monks attending the body transport the box to a natural or man-made cliffside cavern and place it beside other remains. The elevation of the cave entrance varies greatly depending on the social status of the departed.

Cremation: For cremation, the body of the deceased is burned atop a bed of wood and straw. In northern regions of Tibet where wood is scarce, this method is reserved for monks and aristocrats. In the heavily forested southeast, however, commoners may be cremated as well. The big difference comes down to the fate of the ashes. While a commoner's ashes are typically scattered on a mountaintop or into a river, noble ashes are preserved in clay holy objects known as tsa-tsas.

Stupa burial: Found throughout Asia, stupas are sacred Buddhist monuments built to contain holy relics or the remains of particularly holy individuals. Tibetan stupas are reserved for the likes of past Dalai Lamas and incarnations of the Buddha. The deceased is lavishly embalmed with rare spices and minerals before placement.

Tree burial: In remote frosts of southeastern Nyingchi Prefecture, you'll find trees filled with small wooden boxes and baskets. Some of these parcels rest on its limbs while others hang around its trunk. Each contains the remains of a deceased child or an aborted fetus.

Water burial: Just as Tibet is a land of mountainous peaks, it is also a land of surging rivers. As such, the disposal of corpses for consumption by fishes follows the same logic as jhator. Sometimes the body is dismembered first; other times it goes in whole. In regions where sky burial is the preferred funeral custom, water burial is considered a low form of burial for beggars. In southern Tibet, however, vultures are less common, and here water burials are more frequent than they are in the north.

Other Corpse Exposure Customs

At its heart, sky burial is a form of corpse exposure. When an animal falls in the wild, it generally decomposes due to the hunger of scavengers and the ravages of the elements. Exposure customs exploit this natural process for the disposal of the dead. Adherents of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian faith sometimes employ a dakhma, or tower of silence, atop which vultures feast on corpses. Once picked clean, the bones fall through iron bars into a pit below. Similar customs have existed around the world as both noble and ignoble forms of burial for such groups as the Sioux people of North America and the Tiwi people of Australia.

Outsiders and Sky Burial

If you visit Tibet, bear in mind that sky burial is a sacred rite. No matter how respectful your intentions may be, your presence at a sky burial won't be a welcome one, especially if you have a camera. Granted, some photographers and film crews have documented sky burial but only with special permission.

Even if a local offers to take you to witness a sky burial for free or for a fee, the authors of the "Lonely Planet Tibet Travel Guide" warn that other Tibetans will find your presence quite offensive. Furthermore, Chinese authorities may also fine you.

The Chinese authorities, themselves outsiders to many of Tibet's customs and traditions, have a checkered history with respect to sky burial. In addition to the vulture-shooting incident we mentioned earlier, the Chinese banned most religious practices in Tibet following its absorption into the People's Republic of China in 1951. Sky burial remained officially banned throughout the '60s and '70s, but the Tibetans regained limited religious rights during the '80s [source: Faison]. As such, the Chinese leaders in Tibet permit sky burial and other funeral rites but prefer cremation.

Tibetan Buddhists continue to practice jhator, but like so many aspects of traditional Tibetan culture, its future is uncertain. The country's secular governance rests in the hands of China and the head of its religious governance, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, remains in India as an exile. Meanwhile, modern technology and Chinese migrants continue to flood Tibet. Only time will tell if this unique funeral practice survives the decades ahead.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

Lots More Information

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