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The Tibetan Sky Burial

April 22nd, 2009 by

Eastern and western traditions tend to differ from each other significantly. Perhaps this is the reason why we were at first a bit taken aback when we heard about the Tibetan sky burial – a cultural and religious ceremony performed upon the passing of a family member or loved one.

sky burial

Image Credit:silverlinedwinnebago

What is the Tibetan Sky Burial?

The Tibetan sky burial, in short is an often misunderstood burial ceremony practiced within the Tibetan culture. During the ceremony the body of the deceased individual is cut into pieces. It is then taken to the top of a mountain where it is left for the elements and animals.


Image credit:Rotem Eldar

As gruesome as this ritual sounds, many Tibetans follow Buddhist practices. According to Buddhist philosophies our bodies leave our souls the moment we pass away. They feel as though the body needs no special attention as it no longer houses the soul. Some believe that the wild vultures who prey on the remains actually aid the soul in moving to the next spiritual plane.

The family is not necessarily concerned about whether or not the body is allowed to decompose naturally or if it is eaten by wild animals. They are usually more concerned about disposing of the remains.


The History behind the Tibetan Sky Burial

Practices resembling the current Tibetan sky burial have been documented as far back as the 12th century where they were depicted in the Buddhist Book of the Dead. For the most part, however, the ritual seems to have developed out of necessity – not out of over-zealousness or strange religious dedication.


Image credit:Rotem Eldar

The ground in Tibet is very rocky and hard, making it difficult to dig anything more than a few centimeters deep. There is usually a thick layer of frost or rock immediately beneath the surface, most of which lies above the natural tree line. Because of the location above the tree line, finding timber is also very difficult. This makes cremation an unfeasible option as well.

Perhaps one of the most questioned and brutal portions of the Tibetan sky burial ritual are the destruction of the deceased’s bones. Processes to destroy or damage the skeleton were developed to prevent people from stealing them for use in tantric ceremonies. Skullcaps were once used to make kapalas, and thigh bones were once used to make trumpets.


Image credit:Rotem Eldar

In the 1960’s the Chinese government banned the practice of the Tibetan sky burial. They did not budge on this issue until sometime in the 1980’s when they began to allow the practice again. The practice is strictly limited to Tibetans, and others are forbidden to participate in this type of ritual.

What the Tibetan Sky Burial Means

Family Members Watching

Image credit:Rotem Eldar

The Tibetan sky burial, as gruesome as it may seam, is not without meaning. The family and friends of the deceased individual truly believe that they are contributing to the circle of life by giving food to other living beings. This helps them live up to the tenets of Buddhism that encourage compassion for all living creatures.

The Process of Completing a Tibetan Sky Burial

The process used to complete a Tibetan sky burial varies from family to family and, in part, depends on the amount of money a family has to spend. Those with little income to dispose of usually leave the body of their deceased loved ones on a high rock while those who are able participate in a more elaborate ritual.

Drigung Monastery

Image Credit:lhalevi

There are only a few locations in Tibet where the Tibetan sky burial is allowed to occur. Amongst the most important is the Drigung Monastery, at which there is a long flat rock raised above the ground and preserved specifically for the ritual. More elaborate ceremonies include temples and other adornments.

The Body Cut, Pulverized, and Mixed With Flour

Image credit:Rotem Eldar

In formal ceremonies there is an entire day before the burial during which monks at the specified monasteries chant, pray, and burn juniper incense around the body. The next morning the body would be given to the rogyapas (body breakers) to disassemble. Some people claim to have seen the body cut, pulverized, and mixed with flour and other ingredients in preparation for the vultures. Others claim to have seen rituals in which the flesh was merely removed from the bones and given to the vultures separately. The bones were later broken, mixed with the same type of tsampa mixture, and fed to the vultures.

Body Parts Are Fed To The Vultures

Image credit:Rotem Eldar

During some rituals there is no order to the way the body parts are fed to the vultures. In others the monks feed the birds the pulverized bones first while saving the most tantalizing pieces of flesh for last. They fear that feeding the flesh to the vultures first will cause the vultures to leave without touching the bones after having their fill of meat. The vultures leaving any part of the body behind is considered a bad omen.

Observing a Tibetan Sky Burial

Only practiced in Tibet, the Tibetan Sky Burial is considered a very sacred ceremony. In most cases only the family of the deceased is allowed to witness the event and, even then, they tend to stay in an area slightly removed where they can observe the vultures from a distance.


Image credit:Rotem Eldar

If, by chance, you should happen to visit one of these monasteries during a ritual the family may or may not invite you to witness the event. In most places it is considered unethical and offensive to take pictures or make film, but you may do so if the family gives you permission. It is not, however, considered polite to take pictures of the actual body itself. Even in popular professional documentaries special care is usually taken to ensure the body itself is never shown on camera.

Please be respectful if you should ever find yourself in the position to see a Tibetan sky burial up close. While the ceremony is much different than anything you’ll ever experience in your own home, it is certainly sacred to those involved.

One Response to “The Tibetan Sky Burial”

  1. Kathleen Brossmer Says:

    Fascinating information – thanks for sharing and also for the words of caution – respect for another culture.

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