How Sky Burial Works

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

A burial master at rest
A burial master at rest
China Photos/Getty Images

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.