Ancient Tibetan Sky Burial
It's always interesting to learn of new concepts and ideas from different cultures around the world. I stumbled upon this tradition when my husband was sent an email by a friend. "You've got to check this out!" he exclaims. I figure it's of hilarious content, as any source of humor is always appreciated by us both. When in fact, it was quite opposite. He proceeds to explain to me as he's pulling up the email that it's a bit graphic. "Okay...what exactly is this?" I ask. He then goes on to repeat the story as it was explained to him. "They're photos of drug cartel disposing of dead bodies." he says. "Whaaaat?" I replied, obviously not easily convinced. So he shows me the photos. I had to admit, yes pretty graphic. Well, from the standpoint of what this was "suppose" to be. They were amazing photos, yet I couldn't believe the story behind it, I had to research more on these photos myself, and in the process discovered a tradition I had never heard of.
Rather than bury the dead underground as most Westerners are accustomed to, it is a very normal part of Tibetan culture to instead perform what is called a sky burial. At first glance it appears to be grotesque. In fact, it was considered barbaric and prohibited by the People's Republic of China in the 1960s. Then allowed again in the 1980s. Once learning of this cultures belief, it is more understandable to accept what transforms through your mind to be a very practical and respectful burial.
This traditional procedure is called jhator. It basically takes place out on open land on a large flat rock. The family is usually present and nearby throughout the whole jhator. The complete procedure is high priced and elaborate. Those who cannot afford it simply place their deceased on a high rock allowing the body to decompose or eaten by birds or animals.
For Tibetan Buddhists sky burials are based from instructional teaching on the impermanence of life. The word jhator implies an act of generosity. This is viewed as providing food to sustain living beings. The body of the deceased at this point in life is viewed as nothing more than simply flesh.
Juniper incense is burned as monks chant around the body prior to the procedure. The first part of this event is disassembling the body, which is done usually by a monk or more commonly by rogyapas or "body-breakers". There are accounts where the whole body is given to the vultures. In cases where the bones remain, they are crushed and fed to the remaining birds that have waited after the vultures have left. As mentioned, the family is present and sometimes placed where they cannot see the procedure directly. It is usually taken place at dawn.
The idea of watching a loved one's body being eaten by vultures seemed at first very unusual and a bit uneasy. But after delving into the thoughts and beliefs of this culture, it slowly became an admirable and respectable act that eventually sat comfortably in my mind. After much thought I've learned a respect for not only the practicality of this procedure, but also its spiritual belief of offering the deceased to return to human nature in this way.