Tibetan Sky Funerary Rituals

Tibetan Sky Funerary Ritual

For my funerary ritual, I will be discussing the process of the Tibetan sky burials.  The majority of Tibetans follow Buddhism, as well as, the branch of Vajrayana which means they believe in transmigration or rebirth of spirits.  This process conveys that when an individual passes away, their body is viewed as empty and lifeless.  The individual’s spirit has left the body and is traveling to the next life.  Since the body is uninhabited after someone has died, they do not see the purpose of burying the body.

One factor that promoted the utilization of the sky burial is that most of the soil in Tibet contains a layer of permafrost and solid rock making burials difficult.  See additional notes by Van Huygen. (http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sky-burial).  Another aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism is the strong focus on compassion for all living things.  The Tibetans believe it is important to not miss an opportunity to assist another being or animal.

In the sky ritual, the Tibetan culture believes that the soul of the deceased is able to reach the next world by offering of its flesh to vultures.  These vultures are known as Dakini, or angels, that are in charge of taking the souls to the next world.  It is important that the vultures eat all of the corpse to guarantee the ascent of the soul.  Additionally, by allowing the vultures to partake of the flesh, the Tibetan culture believes that they are able to protect the lives of smaller animals that could be eaten by the vultures.

Map of Tibet

Map of Tibet

Tibetan Sky Burials
Step 1:

Sky Burial Site, Yerpa Valley

Sky Burial Site, Yerpa Valley

After an individual has died, the body is left alone for a day or sometimes up to three days.  When these days have passed, monks prepare the corpse by chanting mantra, burning juniper incense, and wrapping the whole body in white cloth.  Once these preparations have been completed, the monks or lamas lead the ritual procession, including the body and the relatives of the deceased, to the charnel grounds.  This area functions as an above-ground space to leave the exposed bodies to decompose.  Furthermore, the lamas lead the procession to these grounds to begin the sky burial.

Relatives of the deceased at a sky burial

Relatives of the deceased at a sky burial

Step 2: 

Once the procession has reached the charnel grounds, the monks, also known as rogyapas (body-breakers), begin to make the initial cuts onto the body.  For the ritual, they disassemble the whole corpse and smash the bones into splinter size pieces.  During this process, the body-breakers also burn incense and recite Buddhist scriptures to welcome the vultures into the ritual.  Read more in Tsering Woeser’s article Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master. (http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/manoa/v024/24.1.woeser.html).

However, the vultures must wait until the body is ready before they descend upon the flesh.  If by chance they do come too close to the corpse, the relatives of the deceased chase them off.

 

Corpse worker washing his hands after cutting up the corpses

Corpse worker washing his hands after cutting up the corpses

Step 3:

Once the body-breakers have finished dissembling the corpse, the vultures are allowed to descend upon on the flesh and the bones.  As stated above, to assure the ascent of the soul, the vultures must eat all of the flesh.  During this ritual, the relatives of the deceased keep their distance.  However, Tibetan Buddhists stay to observe the burial for the purpose of confronting death and fear. “Half an hour later, the body has completely disappeared.  The men leave also, their day’s work finished.  Soon, the hilltop is restored to serenity” (Logan 1997).  See more notes and details in Pamela Logan’s witness account of a burial. (http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~pamlogan/skybury.htm)

 

Vultures feeding a rock

Vultures feeding a rock

Summary and Reflection 

Before beginning research on this particular burial ritual, I had very little knowledge on the practices and history behind it.  Initially, the burial seemed very brutal and gruesome to me and it was hard to understand why a family would want to put their deceased relative through this process.  However, after some research and reading eyewitness accounts, I found the ritual very interesting.  Additionally, it was thought-provoking to examine how the culture views the vultures and their duty in the ceremony.  It is always fascinating to learn about different funerary rituals around the world and to investigate their differences and similarities.

Page created by Sarah Carter

 

Bibliography

Bauer, Kenneth. “Vultures of Tibet.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 2 (2014): 425-28. Accessed October 28, 2105. doi:10.1111/aman.12103.

Lamb, Robert. “How Sky Burial Works.” HowStuffWorks. July 24, 2011. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/cultural-traditions/sky-burial.htm

Logan, Pamela. “Witness to a Tibetan Sky Burial.” Witness to a Tibetan Sky Burial. September 26, 1997. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://www.citationmachine.net/chicago/cite-a-website/copied

Pemba, Dechen. “Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master.” Manoa 24, no. 1 (2012): 92-104. Accessed October 29, 2015. doi:10.1353/man.2012.0016.

Pereira, Peter. “Sky Burial.” Prairie Schooner 80, no. 2 (2006): 21. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40638405.

Shah, Bipin. “Sky Burial Practice of Ancients-From Anatolia to China(west to East).” Sky Burial Practice of Ancients-From Anatolia to China(west to East). 2015. Accessed October 29, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/3758692/Sky_Burial_Practice_of_Ancients-From_Anatolia_to_China_west_to_east_.

Van Huygen, Meg. “Give My Body to the Birds: The Practice of Sky Burial.” Atlas Obscura. March 11, 2014. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sky-burial

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