The Curious Sky Burials of Tibet

Is there ever a subject with as much fervor as death and how we treat death?  I don’t believe so.  In many societies around the globe there are an infinite number of funerary rites that are exercised and respected.  Western Europe buries their dead in elaborate tombs while the peoples of India cremate their dead believing that the fire releases the soul from it’s fleshy cage.  In each culture there are probably numerous methods of preparing corpses for their journey into the afterlife.  The Egyptians were particularly clever with these matters as they prepared the bodies of their pharaohs with salt, resin, and wraps and then let the desert do its work.   However, this is not about them.

Tibet.  The rooftop of the world.  A land that cherishes its culture so much that the borders had been, until recently, closed off for quite some time.  This is the home of the Dalai Lama, a very spiritual land with a diversity of clans and traditions. I have learned that there are several different types of burials that take place.  They are diversified by class, status, age, and location.  It all depends on who and where you are in Tibet that dictates in what manner you will be buried.

Just as a bit of information on the Tibetans view of a rotting corpse.  To a Tibetan, you are not your skin and bones.  You are not you house, your fields, or your possessions.  You are your soul as it leaves you when your body exhales that last breathe and after that your body is just a pile of flesh.  That is why you see skull cameras and skull goblets from Tibet in art galleries and on the internet.  So please keep an open mind as we continue.

The most sacred of all funeral rites is the stupa burial.  This is reserved only for the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, and (if you can ever find one) a living Buddha.  The stupa is a mound-like structure which contains the bodies and relics used for worship.  The body is cleaned and rubbed down with camphor and saffron water and the stomach is cleansed with mercury.  The body is then wrapped in silk and watched over by the service lamas where they keep the butter lamps burning to show remembrance for the dead.  The curious thing to me, truly, are the butter lamps and mercury.

Though cremation is not wholly Tibetan, they do not place the urn on the fireplace mantle (I will probably do a post on that tradition soon.  And to think I was macabre!)  To be short, Tibetans either bury the remains on pure, untainted land or scatter the ashes to the winds or rivers.  The West seems to have similar ideas when you hear so many people requesting their families to “Scatter my remains in the sea”…the Tibetans already had that idea.  It is not original apparently.

Water and earth burials are exactly as you read…burials that involve disposing the bodies in rivers and burying them in the earth.  This process does not involve cremation and the body is wrapped and either sunk or plopped in the ground.  In some areas of Tibet the water burial is treated very seriously while other areas see it as inferior.  The earth burial is mainly used for diseased or…naughty people we shall say.  This way, you can be closer to hell…in the case of the naughty.

A very sad reality is that children die as well.  The Tibetans even use a separate method for this sad occasion. Tree burial is not really explained but one good excuse is the coffins are placed high in the tree so the other children can not see it.

Well, curiosity has took you this far.  Now for the truly curious.

One of the most unique if not initially grotesque traditions (for an outsider anyway) is called sky burial or Celestial burial.  When I first saw this it took me back a bit.  Remember I said to keep an open mind?  Now would be an excellent time to practice that.  The body is nothing but a empty jar after death.  The soul is gone and your body is respected but an empty vessel. Once a person dies, the family chooses a lucky day for the ceremony. The Lamas chant as the official celestial burial master (yes, this is his occupation) takes the corpse to the top of a plateau where smoke is burned to attract vultures or “holy birds”.

In many cases the body is cut up and given to the vultures as the bones and cartilage of ground up and fed to cows and other farm animals.  The flayed body helps the process and can normally take a few days.  This is a very sacred experience and it is considered rude for outsiders to witness the procedure.

If the body is eaten then that signifies the soul is free of sin and is able to achieve Paradise.  If not, the rest of the remains are burned and the Lamas chant so the sin will leave the soul.  If it is not willing to leave, they will make it leave.  This is actually the most common type of burial in Tibet since it completes a cycle of life that most Buddhists believe.

I hope I have satisfied the curious little monster in you.  I do love to feed a curiously curious appetite.

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