How Sky Burial Works

Other Tibetan Burial Customs

A Buddhist stupa on the grounds of the Samye Monastery in Tibet
A Buddhist stupa on the grounds of the Samye Monastery in Tibet
Steve Allen/Photodisc/Getty Images

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.