Feeding The Vultures: The Sacred Sky Burials Of Tibet
“Your body being a mental body is incapable of dying even though beheaded and quartered. In reality, your body is of the nature of voidness; you need not be afraid.” -The Tibetan Book of the Dead
In Tibetan Buddhism, death is not an end but rather the start of a journey. After a person dies, the soul moves on to navigate between the various states of the afterlife, its path determined by the karma generated in its past lifetime. The soul ultimately ends up being reincarnated into a new body, either in the physical world or in heaven or hell. But while the soul is something that lives on in the cycle of death and rebirth, the physical body left behind is nothing more than an empty vessel. Tibetans feel no need to preserve the body and bury it in coffins. In fact, earth burials are considered to be the lowest form of burial, only reserved for criminals and the diseased. Instead, the most common way for Tibetans to dispose of their dead, is to offer them to vultures in a sacred ritual known as a “sky burial”.
Shortly after the death of a person, the body is typically kept upright in a sitting position untouched for two days, while a monk performs the funeral ritual by reciting the funerary incantations from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The monk’s chants are intended to help the soul navigate his way through the various levels of the afterlife. The body is then carried in a ritual procession, led by monks and accompanied by family, to a sacred ledge in the mountains where non-Buddhist professional body-breakers, known as rogyapas, cut the body up according to the instructions of a lama before presenting them to the vultures. The bones that are left over are broken down into smaller pieces and mixed with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk) to be given to the crows and hawks.
It’s believed to be a bad omen if the vultures refuse to eat, or if even a small portion of the body is left unconsumed. In areas where sky burials are carried out several times a day, the birds have to be coaxed to eat with ritual dances. In 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the Tibetan plateau in Yushu, China. With 2,698 people confirmed dead, Tibetan monks were forced to do mass cremations. It was impossible to offer sky burials for all the victims as there were too many for the vultures to eat.
Although some accounts claim that Tibetans believe that the vultures carry the soul up into the heavenly realm, most Tibetans adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teach the transmigration of souls and that at this point, the soul has long left the body, which is now just an empty vessel.
To Tibetan Buddhists, having your body offered to the vultures is good karma and a demonstration of the Buddhist virtues of generosity and compassion as the deceased and the surviving family members are providing food to sustain other living beings. But perhaps the biggest reason for this funeral custom is the practicality of the sky burial. Earth burials in Tibet are difficult because of the land’s rocky soil and thick layer of permafrost—they’re also considered to be the most undignified form of burial. Cremations on the other hand, are honorable but inaccessible for the average Tibetan because firewood is scarce and expensive. For centuries, cremations were only available to wealthy Tibetans and important religious figures, so for ordinary Tibetans, the sky burial is the best way to send off their loved ones.
In recent years however, Sky burials have become less common as more Tibetans turn to cremation. The availability of modern diesel cremation facilities provided by China, the wider accessibility of medical treatment, and the declining population of predatory birds in Tibet have all contributed to the decline of sky burials, now that even poor Tibetans find cremations the more practical and affordable option. As more Tibetans spend their last days in hospitals treated with painkillers, it’s becoming more common for vultures to reject the bodies due to the smell of medicine and disinfectant. And because sky burials require the family to purchase—and later set free—an expensive yak (4,000 yuan) to carry the body, the cremation services (680 yuan) has become the cheaper option for the average Tibetan family.