Every culture has a different perception of what happens when we die: Eternal salvation, reincarnation, nothingness.
For those that conceive of an afterlife, the next question is how do you get there? For Tibetans, this dilemma is resolved in the ancient practice of ‘sky burial’.
Also referred to as celestial burial, the term is oxymoronic: corpses aren’t in fact buried, they’re left on mountainsides and exposed to the elements where they are consumed by vultures or Dakinis (angels).
The custom is known as jhator (‘giving alms to the birds’). It derives from Vajrayana Buddhism, a tenet of Buddhism that teaches the transmigration of spirits.
The body is considered merely a vessel for the soul; once life has expired, there is no need for it to be preserved.
Back to nature
Jhator adheres to the Buddhist teaching that life is impermanent and that humans are inherently connected to their environment.
It incorporates the Buddhist ethos of generosity and compassion towards all things, including animals.
In jhator, bodies are given back to nature, nourishing other living beings. Far from being scavengers, Tibetans consider vultures to be sacred animals and they carry an important purpose in death: transporting the spirit to heaven to await reincarnation.
Tibet is a region of China, located among some of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Mountains.
It is remote and wild, and one of the least explored places on earth. The ground is too rocky or frozen for burial, and a dearth of firewood means that funeral pyres cannot be constructed for bodies to be cremated.
Sky burial is an efficient way to dispose of human remains, borne out of both spiritual and practical concerns.
Prayers and preparation
The first few days after a Tibetan dies, the body is kept at home, wrapped in a white cloth and placed in the corner of the home.
Lamas or monks are summoned to recite prayers for anywhere between 24 hours and three days, which is believed to release the soul from purgatory.
For Tibetan Buddhists, death is a complex, spiritual journey that has little to do with the physical form.
It is perceived as a journey from this earth bound life to the next, with huge importance placed on ritual to ensure the soul can navigate what Tibetans refer to as bardo: a dreamlike space that lies somewhere between death and rebirth.
When it comes times for burial, the spine is broken and the body is maneuvered into the foetal position and bundled up ready for transport.
A close friend or relative is tasked with taking the body to the sacred burial site, or durtro. The journey starts at sunrise and the family joins the procession, beating drums and chanting.
It can be an arduous trek: burial sites are remote and desolate, situated on steep inclines, making jhator a uniquely isolating approach to death.
Death and dissection
Customarily, only families are permitted to attend sky burials; it is believed that the presence of strangers can impede the soul’s ascension to heaven.
However, recent eye-witness accounts from Westerners suggest that they are allowed to watch on the promise that they keep their distance and do not take photos.
The body is taken up to a stone platform by a rogyapas, or body breaker. Their job is exactly as it sounds: the rogyapas dissects the body so that the waiting vultures can pick at the flesh.
Sometimes a lama burial master will perform this rite, reciting prayers as well as breaking the body.
First he (and it is almost exclusively a male) burns juniper in order to attract the vultures. They arrive in hundreds to perch nearby and circle overhead.
The rogyapas then gets to work, using a blade to pull the body apart.
There is debate as to whether the knife has ceremonial connotations; eyewitness reports refer to it variously as an axe or flaying knife, suggesting that the implement is chosen at the discretion of the rogyapas.
First he removes and discards the hair (sometimes it is retained and kept in a room in a temple). Then the body breaker takes off the limbs, strips the flesh from the bones and tosses it to the flock of hungry vultures that are closing in.
Though it sounds like a gruesome job, the rogyapas tend to laugh and joke while they work as it is thought a relaxed atmosphere is crucial in guiding the deceased from this life to the next.
With his work done, he stands back to let the vultures converge and feast on the body.
They can pick the body clean of its flesh in as little as 15 minutes – at which point the body breaker returns to the bones.
Using a mallet, he smashes and grinds them, combining them with tsampa – a staple Tibetan food made of yak butter and barely flour – then tossing them to the vultures.
It is considered a bad omen if parts are leftover although bone fragments are occasionally saved and used to make ritual bowls, teacups, musical instruments and other sacred items.
Sky burial today
Today, sky burial is an officially recognised and protected practice but it has its detractors.
The Communist governments of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Mongolia condemned it as superstition, with China banning it outright from late 1960s until the 1980s.
Though still common in rural communities, a decrease in the vulture population has made sky burial increasingly difficult and the residue of medicine and chemicals left over from modern medical intervention often deter those that remain.
It is also an expensive ritual, thanks to the specialist skills of the rogyapas. For this reason, some families opt for a second form of jhator, where the body is left whole and exposed to scavengers with little additional ceremony.
In urban areas, cremation is an increasingly preferable choice.
Sky burial may at first seem like a primitive and distant ritual that is not relevant or preferable in the West, but the trend for ecological burial is indeed growing.
In the UK, companies like Woodland Burials offer ‘environmentally friendly, cost effective and permanent alternatives to traditional funerals, cemeteries and graveyards’ and in her 2017 TED talk, Caitlin Doughty presented a compelling argument for alternative, sustainable, burial practice practices.
We may not commit ourselves to the skies like the Tibetan Buddhists, but there is something relatable – even desirable – about returning our bodies to the earth.
As for what happens next… that’s up to you.