Unlike many western cultures, Tibetans are not fearful of death. For them, it is simply a transformation – not an ending. They meet death calmly and with serenity. In order for a smooth transition from this realm to the one awaiting, they believe no trace of earthly existence should be left, including the physical body. Sky burial (jhator) is a reflection of the impermanence of this seeming life. It is also known as celestial burial or bird burial.

Returning the empty vessel back to Mother Nature and providing nourishment to the planet’s creatures is a great privilege for Tibetans. They experience it as a final offering of honour, compassion, and generosity. Back to the earth that gave them life. 

These creatures are most often sacred vultures – also known as Dakinis (sky dancers). To Tibetans, they are respected as angels. These Dakinis take the soul to the heavens, where it awaits its reincarnation.

Significant emphasis is placed on ritual to ensure the soul can navigate what is known as the bardo state – a dreamlike intermediate space between death and rebirth. During this passage, lamas direct the spirit in a sequence of prayers that last for seven weeks. 

The Process of the Burial

The bodies are swathed in white cloth and placed in one corner of the house for three to five days. It is not touched during this time, except perhaps at the crown of the head, through which the consciousness, or namshe, departs. Throughout this period, monks or lamas recite scriptures/pray/give blessings aloud so that the soul can be freed from purgatory. The household maintains a peaceful atmosphere to safeguard an effortless exit and ascension to the heavens. All family members are present to honour and support this auspicious sacrament with butter lamps lighting up the home. Once the prayer period has concluded, the family chooses a day at dawn for the corpse to be transported to the sky burial site, aka: the charnel grounds or durtro. It is always higher than its surroundings.  The funeral day is chosen through divination. 

Villagers transport the body to the sacred burial site by horse or car. The master of the ceremony conducts rituals over the body. Relatives often remain nearby during the sky burial, perhaps in a location where they cannot witness it directly. Monks may chant mantra and burn juniper incense and tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk) to summon the vultures. The corpse is positioned face-down on a large flat rock, the hair removed. Once the birds begin to circle over the site, the master or rogyapas (“body-breakers”) then begin to chop the limbs into small pieces with axes and sledgehammers.

When just the bones are left, they are broken up with mallets, ground with tsampa and given to the awaiting crows and hawks now that the vultures have left.

It’s a good omen if the vultures eat the whole body. Tibetans believe that if this is not the case, he or she has committed un-virtuous acts.

Other Forms to Bury Bodies

The complete sky burial practice is elaborate and costly. If it is unaffordable, the family will set their deceased on a high rock where the corpse decomposes or is consumed by birds and animals. 

Other forms in which Tibetans bury bodies after death include water burial, cremation, and burial in the ground. While sky burial is the most common, those who have perished from leprosy or infectious diseases are not given a sky burial so as not to harm the vultures. Alternatively, they are buried in the ground or cremated. 

More Reasons for Sky Burial

With sky burial, it is unnecessary to disrupt the land to bury the body, which also respects ecological preservation. Furthermore, the soil in Tibet is difficult to dig up since a thin layer of permafrost typically covers solid rock. Wood is also both costly and sparse since most of Tibet is situated above the tree line, which makes cremations challenging.

References

Tibetpedia | Atlas Obscura | Wikipedia | Ancient Origins