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Ancient Tibetan Sky Burial

Updated on July 11, 2011
Warning: Some graphic images included
Warning: Some graphic images included

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.

Warning: Some graphic images included

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    • profile image

      Jose 5 years ago

      Amazon

    • _cheryl_ profile image
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      _cheryl_ 6 years ago from California

      Thank you mens24.com! I really admire the culture and their view on ancient sky burials.

    • profile image

      mens24.com 6 years ago

      WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share.. ..

      www.Mens24.com

    • _cheryl_ profile image
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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Thank you Astra Nomik. I think the idea of celebrating a loved one's life after they have passed is a great idea. I definitely would want my family and loved ones to do the same, remember me and celebrate my life. Learning of the ancient tibetan sky burial tradition was so interesting for me. I love that the focus is on returning what has passed and celebrating and honoring what lives on forever, which is our spirit.

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      Cathy Nerujen 7 years ago from Edge of Reality and Known Space

      Why do some people find some Asian traditions weird. To people from Asia, this is part of life, part of our culture, and our way of life. I agree it is shocking to see nature reclaim what belongs to it, but everything that grows out of the ground is reclaimed too in some way. Life truly is a cycle. It's normal to have celebrations for the dead in some countries. I have friends in The Philippines who celebrate at cemeteries there and they honor the family and friends who have died. It is very beautiful to see. I would love to be remembered that way when I die.

      Very good hub.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Thanks lxxy, I have to admit it was a bit shocking at first. But after learning about this cultures reasoning behind it all, I have come to admire it.

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      lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

      I think this is one of the most beautiful way of dealing with our carbonized existence since Mexico chilling out on family's graves and having a party with them.

      They are returned to nature, from whence they came. :)

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      I've always wanted to see these huge birds in person and up close. "morticians in the sky"....what a visual, huh! I will always look at these birds in a different light now. I appreciate your comment GarnetBird. =)

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      Gloria Siess 7 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      Great Hub/I majored in Cultural Anthropology and this impressed me. I am a fan of the Turkey Vulture--it's sometimes sighted near where I live in the mts.--they're so big and cute looking.Kind of goofy, but they make great morticians in the sky!

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Hi habee, yes very true!

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      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Fascinating! At least the flesh isn't wasted.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Thank you loveofnight. I agree that once our bodies die, it is simply that- a body. Our spirits, our souls are what live on and that too makes it easier to understand and accept their belief and culture. The graphics, I chose to show simply because it pushes people to really stretch their minds around a concept past their own first impressions and what we're culturally accustomed to. Hopefully allowing people to look past what they see and that there is true depth to these practices.

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      loveofnight 7 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      i enjoy learning about the ways of people around the world. it is not always for me to understand or accept. although i will agree to their rights to do what they believe to be right for themselves. because i believe, that which made the person unique to themselves and others leaves the body upon death, all that is left is a carcass of dead flesh so it is not too hard for me to understand the method to their madness......nice hub and thx for the graphics

    • _cheryl_ profile image
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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Nellieanna, you're right. They are just conventions. I believe that our loved one's memory and spirit of soul is what lives on and is of much more importance in itself than what is chosen to be done with their body of flesh. Like I've mentioned above, I respect their reasonings. But it doesn't make it easier for me to see implementing that convention myself. It was a huge eye-opener for me, one that challenged my open-mindedness to see if I could look past a gruesome first impression. I like to think that in doing so, I increase my knowledge of all walks of life that surround me. I appreciate you sharing your insight on this, thanks for reading Nellieanna.

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      Nellieanna Hay 7 years ago from TEXAS

      Cheryl, of course - it comes at first as a jarring idea if not a shock to our western minds. However, if practicality were a factor, our loved ones remains are not spared from disintetrating by our words before we hide them away, and it's obvious that the Tibetans do no unceremoniously just toss theirs' out for the vultures either. These conventions are just that - conventions. My feeling is that it is the memory of the loved one which does not disintegrate that counts and that returning the remains to the Earth is accomplished in whatever form. All religions teach some method of returning "dust to dust" with dignity in the heart where it abides as we let go of the no-longer-living remains. I can't say I relish it but just putting it into the ground or into a cript, while out of sight, does not change the cycling of life and the beauty of birth and of rebirth. I'm much in agreement with realizing and going with, rather than opposing, the uncertainty of life. In may ways it is what defines LIFE. Permanance is static and fixed and unchanging. Life is dynamic - and insecure and uncertain.

      Anyway - perhaps living on the top of a high, snowy, rocky mountain range has partly determinied the Tebeetan choice of funeral ritual. It certainly is an effective method for it. And they seem to be as reverent if not more so in their daily practice of piety than many other groups may be in theirs.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Hey Mikie! What a very sweet compliment, I really appreciate that. I love how diverse we all can be. Though not all of our differences are easy to accept, the ideas that are extremely far apart from ours seem to always grab my attention. It helps me stretch my mind I guess! Thank you for your comment. =)

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      mikielikie 7 years ago from Texas

      WOW... What a wonderful piece of info. It's amazing how different we all are isn't it? Your blogs are like Mona Lisa's smile....very interesting. I love how you are so detailed.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      jacobkuttyta- strange at first, but after researching I admit, still somewhat strange....but more understandable. Thanks for stopping by. =)

      billyaustindillon- Thank you, and I agree that it is very hard to look at. If we can open up slightly of their reasonings for this, at least we have the knowledge of why this is done and further our knowledge of other cultures. =)

      Hi entertainmentplus, thanks for checking it out.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      singlemomat52- Yes, completely different! I would have never imagined such a procedure being done out of cultural belief, but this helps open my eyes of how extremely diverse cultural minds can be. Kind of challenges us to see how open-minded we really are. Thanks for reading.

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      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      De Greek, I had similar views as I first looked at these photos. It appears to be so barbaric to say the least. I guess the placement of their cultural belief in their minds, over powers what they can bare to physically witness of their deceased. Honestly, I don't think I could watch my loved one go in this way. But, I also have'nt been raised in that culture. I trust that the families are able to witness this as respectful in their beliefs, that I can respect. Thanks for your comment...=)

    • entertianmentplus profile image

      entertianmentplus 7 years ago from United States

      Well done post..

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Very interesting hub - hard to look at though I must admit!

    • jacobkuttyta profile image

      jacobkuttyta 7 years ago from Delhi, India

      Strange

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      singlmomat52 7 years ago

      Wow! Very interesting. Funny how different other cultures can be as compared to us. But then, they probably say the same thing about us. Interesting Hub, thanks for sharing.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      I can understand the thinking behind this custom, but frankly the factor "human dignity in death" is upermost in my mind when I watch those photos. It appears to be lacking in the treatment of the cadavers in the pictures. Hacking them to pieces with a hatchet does not appear to me to the hight of respect. But then it does not mean that this is not respectfully done by teh people who believe in this custom. May they rest in peace.