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.
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