A woman herds yaks on the outskirts of Tibet's Basu County.

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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.