Sky burial is a unique part of Tibetan culture. It is specifically found among Buddhist peoples' of the Himalaya region. I have wanted to write an article about it for quite some time, but have put it off until now.
Sky burial is a very private matter. Unfortunately, over the past 7 years of living in the greater Tibet area I have heard stories of foreigners showing up while a sky burial is being performed and taking pictures. Why they would want to take pictures at a funeral, particularly a sky burial funeral, is beyond me. I have delayed in writing about sky burials because I have not wanted to have more foreigners interfere with them. But, I feel now is an appropriate time to write a little about it.
I have a good Tibetan friend of mine who recently wrote an in depth report about sky burial. Though I have read several books concerning the matter, much of this article will be based on information from this friend of mine. I personally have never been to a sky burial while it is taking place. I would NEVER go unless it was for a Tibetan friend of mine and I was personally invited by the family. If I were invited to a sky burial, under no circumstance would I take pictures of it. It is much to personal to be captured on film. All the pictures on this article are from sky burial sites, but NOT when one was in progress.
There are 4 main types of burial in Tibetan culture, with sky burial being the most common. The other 3 types are water burial, ground burial and fire burial. Sky burial sites are found all over Tibet. Nearly every town will have a sky burial site in the mountains outside of town. The most famous places for sky burials are the monasteries of Drigung and Ganden in central Tibet. When a Tibetan person dies, usually monks come to the home and pray for the deceased for 3 days. During this time the body is left untouched. Most Tibetans I have talked to say it is not appropriate to show sadness or grief during this time. After the body has been prayed for, it is wrapped in white cloth and then moved to the sky burial site. Many sky burial sites will have a small temple nearby. The monks who perform sky burials often live in the small temple. These monks are trained specifically to perform the tasks involving sky burial. Tools that are used for sky burial include large knives, small axes and a sledgehammer.
Once the body reaches the sky burial site, it is unwrapped. The monks put on white aprons and take out their razor sharp knives. Members of the family, usually the men, will stand off to the side while the monks begin cutting the body into small pieces. The body is cut on a large stone (pictured above). Once the cutting of the body begins, it does not take long for the vultures to come. They begin circling above the body and then fly down to the ground in anticipation of being fed. Vultures are considered to be holy to Tibetans. Many Tibetans have told me that the vultures that consume the bodies during sky burial eat nothing else. They only eat dead bodies.
Once the body is finished being cut up, the vultures (pictured above feeding on a dead horse) are given the body. It does not take long for the body to be consumed. Usually, the body is gone within a half an hour. The bones that are left over are crushed with a sledgehammer and mixed with tsamba (barley flour) and then fed to the birds again. by the time it is all over, nothing is left of the body except for maybe small bone fragments, some hair and a few small pieces of skin.
Sky burial is one of the most interesting aspects of Tibetan culture. The process varies slightly in the different regions of Tibet. If you happen to be invited to one, it is definitely not something that needs to be captured on film. The greatest of respect needs to be shown during a sky burial. The pictures I have posted are pictures of sky burial sites when a funeral was not in progress. Try to avoid going to sky burials uninvited. I have heard of several stories of Tibetans becoming quite angry and even violent when people show up uninvited.
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