How Sky Burial Works

The Rite of Sky Burial

A burial master breaks bones for the vultures.
A burial master breaks bones for the vultures.
China Photos/Getty Images

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.