Tibetan Sky Burials: History, Traditions & Process Explained

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In recent years, there’s been a movement in the United States to return to simpler, more environmentally-conscious green burial options. In green funerals, people forgo toxic chemicals to embalm bodies and skip using coffins made from hardwood and steel. 

Instead, bodies are preserved in a cold environment and then buried in a biodegradable shroud or coffin. The goal? To ensure that the body naturally decomposes while the natural materials it is buried in biodegrade. 

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As proponents for natural burial practices seek to grow the movement, they’ve begun to share the history of eco-conscious burial practices. One method that’s often talked about the Tibetan sky burial. 

But, what some people think of as simply a green burial practice is actually a ceremony steeped in religion and deep meaning. While many Western funerals involve priests and prayers, the Buddhist sky burial tradition has its own cultural and religious significance that shouldn’t be overlooked.

What’s a Tibetan Sky Burial?

Tibetan Buddhists have several distinct burial practices that connect to the four tantric elements of earth, water, fire, and air. The Buddhist sky burial is tied to the element of air. In it, bodies are left out in the open air for vultures to consume.  

Once the consciousness has left the body, it’s an empty vessel. So, Tibetans feel that there’s no need to preserve the body. They believe it’s best for animals to use it for nourishment. Sky burials are also referred to as bird burials and celestial burials. The Tibetan word for the ritual is jhator.    

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History of Tibetan Sky Burials

Tibetan sky burials have been in practice for hundreds of years. They were first documented in a treatise from the 12th century known as Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but they may have gone on for much longer than that. 

Some make the argument that sky burials are done strictly out of ecological necessity. Much of Tibet is a harsh landscape, comprised of rocky soil that is frozen for much of the year. This makes interment in the ground very difficult. Fertile land must be preserved for agriculture. Earth burials, therefore, are mostly restricted to people who have perished from disease and considered too unclean for sky burials.

There are also very few trees above certain elevations, meaning that there may not be a sufficient amount of wood to perform many cremations. Cremations are, therefore, limited to high lamas (chiefs or high priests) or other dignitaries. 

In recent years, cremation has become more common for people of all backgrounds thanks to improvements in modern technology. And while sky burials may seem to be an inexpensive burial solution, there are hidden costs. Bodies are transported to sky burial grounds on a yak, which is then set free in thanks for their part in the ritual. This makes a sky burial more expensive than cremation. 

However, many historians and scholars disagree with this interpretation. They argue that the sky burial is done less out of ecological necessity, and more because of its significance to Tibetan Buddhists. Two of the most important sky burial sites, the Sera and Drigung monasteries, are surrounded by wooded areas. This means cremation may not have been as inaccessible as others think.

Process of a Sky Burial 

A Buddhist sky burial is an ancient, and well-guarded practice. Much of what is known about it has been pieced together from translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and there are different interpretations of the information contained within.    

Spiritual components

Central to the premise of Buddhism is the belief that we all live many lives. An individual’s consciousness (or nam shes) is thought to continue through a cycle of death and rebirth until they achieve enlightenment. 

The suffering part of this cycle of death is called samsara. The enlightenment, or the extinguishing of all suffering, is called nirvana. The period between death and rebirth is called the bardo stage. It takes 49 days and is considered to be a fraught and dangerous time for the nam shes

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the consciousness remains attached to the body for three or four days.  During that time, it shouldn’t be touched. Immediately following a death, the deceased’s body is covered with a white sheet to allow the nam shes to separate from the body undisturbed. The head of the body is left free so that the nam shes can escape.  

Once the nam shes has left the body, the corpse is put into the fetal position. This symbolizes the consciousness being reborn out of the current life and into the next. It also helps prevent the body from becoming a ro-lang, the Tibetan culture’s equivalent to zombies. It also has a practical rationale: in this position, the body is easier to transport to the burial site.

Before the body is removed from where it has been kept, any relatives or other participants in the burial rites must be purified with water that has been blessed by a lama. This ensures no evil spirits will contaminate the nam shes in the course of the burial. 

Ceremonial details

Once the body has been brought to the burial ground, it is known that monks burn incense and chant mantras around the body. What happens next is somewhat unclear, as scholars disagree about the order of events. Recent eyewitness accounts have also differed, so the ceremony may be practiced differently at individual monasteries. 

In some cases, the body is first disassembled into pieces by people called rogyapas. The rogyapas use mallets to break up the bones and flesh into a pulp. The pulp is then mixed with tsampa, a Tibetan staple foodstuff composed of barley flour, tea, and yak butter or milk. This mixture is then presented to the vultures.

In other cases, the body is left out for the vultures whole. When the vultures are finished leaving only bones, the rogyapas break up the bones and combine it with tsampa to give to other birds of prey like hawks and crows. It is considered a bad omen if the entire body isn’t consumed by the birds. 

Are Sky Burials Still Performed?

Tibetan sky burials are still performed to this very day, though it’s unknown how widespread the practice is. They have long been a closely-held ceremony to which outsiders are not typically invited. They fell out of favor for a long time during China’s Cultural Revolution, which saw the practice completely banned from the late 1960s through the 1980s. 

The Communist governments of Mongolia and the People’s Republic of China considered Buddhist sky burials to be both primitive and unsanitary, and they closed many of the temples where sky burials took place. Rural areas were able to preserve the practice to some extent, and sky burials have received official protection in the recent past. However, there is no doubt that it’s much less in practice than it once was.

At least a few outsiders have gotten to witness a Buddhist sky burial recently. Journalist Matthew Carney traveled to a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery located near Tagong in North Eastern Sichuan.

While he had planned just to see the isolated place where it was rumored sky burials still happen, he did not plan to witness one. He was told foreigners weren’t allowed to observe or participate in the ritual. But when he and his family arrived, he discovered Tibetan nuns chanting and several people preparing for a sky burial to take place and was welcomed to stay by a Tibetan observer as long as he didn’t take photographs. 

He, his wife, and their two older children caught a glimpse into one of the most ancient and sacred burial rituals of the region. Few accounts beyond his can be found though, so they remain a mystery.

The Significance of the Tibetan Sky Burial

For fans of green funerals, the Tibetan Sky Burial may seem like a fascinating glimpse into an ecologically-sound or alternative burial practice. But it is about so much more than environmental friendliness. This sacred ritual is a profound aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, and it is inextricably tied to religious and cultural practices of the region where it originated.


Sources

  1. Shank, Catherine H. “Sky Burials: Ecological Necessity or Religious Custom?” University of Puget Sound, University of Puget Sound, Date Published in 17/05/2019, https://soundideas.pugetsound.edu
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