Sky Burial: Eco-Friendly Funerals

11Sep09

30589-Eating-Little-Pieces-0[WARNING: Contains graphic images] Sky burial or ritual dissection was once a common funerary practice in Tibet wherein a human corpse is cut in specific locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements or the mahabhuta and animals – especially to birds of prey. In Tibetan the practice is known as jhator, which literally means, “giving alms to the birds.” The majority of Tibetans adhere to Buddhism, which teaches rebirth. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it, or nature may let it decompose. So the function of the sky burial is simply the disposal of the remains. In much of Tibet the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and with fuel and timber scarce, a sky burial is often more practical than cremation. Sky burial is not considered suitable for children who are less than 18, pregnant women, or those who have died of infectious disease or accident. The origin of sky burial remains largely hidden in Tibetan mystery.

Sky burial is a ritual that has great religious meaning. Tibetans are encouraged to witness this ritual, to confront death openly and to feel the impermanence of life. Tibetans believe that the corpse is nothing more than an empty vessel. The spirit, or the soul, of the deceased has exited the body to be reincarnated into another circle of life. It is believed that the Drigung Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism established the tradition in this land of snow, although there are other versions of its origin.

30583-Family-Members-Watching-0-3The corpse is offered to the vultures. It is believed that the vultures are Dakinis. Dakinis are the Tibetan equivalent of angels. In Tibetan, Dakini means “sky dancer”. Dakinis will take the soul into the heavens, which is understood to be a windy place where souls await reincarnation into their next lives. This donation of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food. Sakyamuni, one of the Buddhas, demonstrated this virtue. To save a pigeon, he once fed a hawk with his own flesh.

After death, the deceased will be left untouched for three days. Monks will chant around the corpse. Before the day of sky burial, the corpse will be cleaned and wrapped in white cloth. The corpse will be positioned in a fetal position, the same position in which the person had been born. The ritual of sky burial usually begins before dawn. Lamas lead a ritual procession to the charnel ground, chanting to guide the soul. There are few charnel grounds in Tibet. They are usually located near monasteries. Few people would visit charnel grounds except to witness sky burials. Few would want to visit these places.

The Process

Crushing The Bones-1After the chanting, the body breakers prepare the body for consumption by the vultures. The body is unwrapped and the first cut is made on the back. Hatchets and cleavers are used to quickly cut the body up, in a definite and precise way. Flesh is cut into chunks of meat. The internal organs are cut into pieces. Bones are smashed into splinters and then mixed with tsampa, roasted barley flour.

As the body breakers begin, juniper incense is burned to summon the vultures for their tasks, to eat breakfast and to be Dakinis. During the process of breaking up the body, those ugly and enormous birds circle overhead, awaiting their feast. They are waved away by the funeral party, usually consisting of the friends of the deceased, until the body breakers have completed their task. After the body has been totally separated, the pulverized bone mixture is scattered on the ground. The birds land and hop about, grabbing for food. To assure ascent of the soul, the entire body of the deceased should be eaten. After the bone mixture, the organs are served next, and then the flesh.

This mystical tradition arouses curiosity among those who are not Tibetan. However, Tibetans strongly object to visits by the merely curious. Only the funeral party will be present at the ritual. Photography is strictly forbidden (though this rule is sometimes breached as is apparent through our image gallery). Tibetans believe that photographing the ritual might negatively affect the ascent of the soul. [Source]

The Vultures

Vultures Fighting Over FleshThe species of vulture involved is apparently the “Eurasian Griffon” or “Old World vulture,” Order Falconiformes, Family Accipitridae, scientific name Gyps fulvus. In places where there are several jhator offerings each day, the birds sometimes had to be coaxed to eat, which in one case was accomplished by a ritual dance. It is considered a bad omen if the vultures will not eat, or if even a small portion of the body is left after the birds fly away. In places where fewer bodies are processed, the vultures were more eager and sometimes had to be fended off with sticks during the initial preparations.

Video Gallery

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Image Gallery

1. Before

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2. After

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3.

Tibetan-Sky-Burial

4.

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5.

Tibetmuertosbuitresdetalle.Jpg

6.

Crushing The Bones

7.

30586-Collecting-All-The-Pieces-0

8. Family of the deceased

30583-Family-Members-Watching-0-2

Source

1. Images of a burial

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44 Responses to “Sky Burial: Eco-Friendly Funerals”

  1. 1 li

    While this is interesting, I do not necessarily think that some of these pictures and videos should be posted. It’s still a funeral, which should maintain some privacy and respect. Maybe I’m just being conservative about the situation.

  2. 2 Amber N.

    I’m all for the traditional funeral. This stuff sounds a bit too “close to nature” for my taste.

  3. 3 sarah

    wow i cannot imagine grinding someones bones down! Just for a start

  4. 4 Alexis

    I’m all for the natural way.. Helps the earth too..

  5. 5 Slyt

    nice pic…but i’m not gonna watch the video

  6. 6 Marijn

    The only problem with this in my view is that your friends would remember you as a bloody pulp of flesh, wouldn’t be a nice memory.
    For the rest I think it is cool that you give something back to nature after you polluted it your whole life.

    • 7 Allergy

      But you have to think: This is a sacred ritual to them. They probably don’t see a bloody mess (well, they do) but probably see it more as their loved one ascending into the heavens and hopefully continuing their journey to being reincarnated. I’m sure that they are indeed saddened by the death of their loved ones, but still know/believe in the bigger picture.

  7. 8 Zenayda

    Oh wow – totally didn’t expect those photos to be as graphic as they are! Think I’ll skip out on watching the videos.

    Sky burials are fascinating. I think the Pakistanis have something similar. My friend lived in Pakistan for a while and said there was some type of burial where the body would be placed on top of a tower or something for maybe a week or something… I’m not sure how accurate that is or how popular but I remember him saying something like that.

    Great article again, Jamie! 🙂

    • 9 Gaara

      Zoroastrians have something similar too. It’s interesting to see similarity in different cultures and I think it’s because most of these rituals are really based on the practicality and sanitary aspects of the funeral practice.

      http://www.avesta.org/ritual/funeral.htm

      • 10 erickarthik

        Yup its true and bizarre. But imagine the situation of locals who live around such “sites”. Dogs, Vultures, pigs everything crawl around them. so the question regarding sanitation is a big problem. In Iran where this religion originated, its not legal to do that, but in India it still is continued.

  8. 11 Syfte

    Admittedly… I burst out laughing when I saw you had labeled two of the photographs before and after. I know, horrible, but there you are. Great article though, very interesting.

  9. 12 Cuntageous

    Every other type of animal decays out in the open after death to become nutrition for other life forms. Why should humans be any different? Burial, especially with tombs, caskets, and gravestones seems such a waste.

  10. 13 milqytoast

    I don’t see why a lot of people (think great historical figures, in particular) should care how they are buried/entombed/enshrined/etc. after their deaths. Sure, some burial places of said figures can be interesting tourist sites, but I think it’s a bit silly to worry about what will happen to your body once you die and lose control over it anyway. For example, I don’t see why everyone can’t just be an organ donor, in theory. Might as well put your body to some use for other (benevolent) purposes. This sky burial is an interesting idea, it does just that. Coming from an outside culture though, it’d seem a bit horrifying to witness (and much less partake) in the grinding/cutting up/etc. process. Think I’d rather be a normal mortician…

  11. 14 EuripidesTheYounger

    I look at the silly, expensive and disrespectful rituals the modern funeral industry and their lobbies have put in place in America and wonder why we’ve allowed death to become more expensive than living.
    Once, dead, the corpse is an empty vessel. Might as well recycle. And if you think those images are unpleasant, then stay home. I’ve been a firefighter and an EMT. I could tell you about unpleasant images.

  12. 15 Kay

    Woah. I know their was a warning, but I was not expecting those kind of pictures.

  13. 16 Just me

    I buried the cremains of my sister today. My family gets the whole vessel/organ issue…this is no new thing for us. We all fly a little better without the extra weight…right? In our family our bodies hold us back….we give what we can when we can’t use it anymore because so much has been given to us through these means. Given the cultural and geographical issues involved I think this is a wonderful way for a sendoff..not pretty…but wonderful..ashes to ashes…dust to dust. We remember what we do for a reason….it’s selective..you want horror that’s what you get….you want transcendental that’s what it is…it’s all in perspective. Do I want to be the one doing the dirty work? Absolutely not…but I’m grateful there are those who are willing.

  14. 17 Kathleen

    Man… I would NOT want to mess with a vulture.

  15. 18 tia long

    Great article!! Now I won’t asked to be dumped into a garbage bag as I once thought.
    I have given a great part of my life to exotic birds, and it’s a same in this country it isn’t
    possible to donate it to feeding the wild.
    This site is amazing!

  16. 19 fuxnix

    i hate to say this, but what if some of those deceased people had deadly viruses/bacterias along with them, it would possibly be transmitted unto the vultures. then, infecting the wild population and thus creates another strain of deadly strain of virus/bacteria which will cause a worldwide pandemic and massive scale extinction.

    i say to outlaw and ban this tradition for good!

    • There have been cases of this happening so there is definitely merit in your comment.

    • 21 erickarthik

      There was a Nat Geo documentary on anthrax spreading in wild hippos in Africa which dealt with the same thing.

    • 22 LoonyMoon

      What about all the animals that die in the wild ?? Should we bury them too 🙂

  17. 23 Firefly

    My boyfriend wants a sky burial but realistically I don’t think that’s going to happen. Besides I don’t want to be the one to grind his bones up.

  18. 24 sonicsuicide

    Christ! That is grotesque doesn’t matter how manny times you slice it!

    I want a Viking Funeral. Some dude in a black coat saying things like “We release you from your earthly duties” whilst I float away on a burning raft into the sunset…

  19. 25 samzillastein

    I’m pretty convinced that I’m donating my body to science. If they’ll take it.

  20. 26 LoonyMoon

    I think I will give this due consideration before my time comes. Thanks JFrater! Again A++

  21. 27 Looser

    i think the human burial is a wonderful thing. I’m not sure i enjoy this vulture eating thing quite as much. perhaps its just my morbid fascination with grave yards (my preschool was next to one and i’ve loved them ever since) but i think graveyards and human burials perfectly exemplify the struggle against nature that man has. we bury the body so that we cant see the body and we fool ourselves into thinking we’re above nature. we’re not but we have graves as a continued part of our illusion that we are. furthermore they’re less messy.

    • 28 kanye west

      human grave is as close as we get to immortality

  22. 29 Justin Thomas

    I am relieved to see that I am not the only one that wants this done with my body when I have finished with it. It is a shame that in my “free and democratic” society I am not allowed to make an adult, free or democratic decision. For me this is perfect, at least my body will find some use at the end, rather than polluting the soil, taking up land, causing religious suspicion or just polluting the air with carbon monoxide and dioxide. But then again, most people fail to even think about peaking outside the box.

  23. 30 zuki

    This is a bad idea.
    What if the body was a homosexual man?
    this would mean the body had aids and germs of aids would be eaten by the birds.
    what if the birds then landed on a babys buggy? The baby mite touch the bird and get aids from the homosexuals body.

    IT is just a mad way of spreading aids around the world to normal people.

    • 31 Soc prof

      Yeah…that is not the way HIV/AIDs is transmitted. So keep your homophobia to yourself.

    • 32 Cremations for me

      Zuki, I have seen a lot of stupid comments on many sites but if yours isn’t #1 you have to be very close to it. Aids is not spread that way. Do some research first, then comment.

      AIDS is not exclusive to the gay people of our world. Plenty of heterosexuals contract the disease as well.

      I am amazed how some people live as long as they do, stupid as they are.

  24. 33 fallers

    They are the funniest pics of the year dude!

    Watching those gooks chopping up the stiffs made me laugh and laugh.!

    That should be on jackass – it would be really funny to watch the guys chopping up gooks and scooping out the gook guts and shit and stuff!

    man you pick the funniest things.

    • 34 Aussie

      Deadset, you a are a TOOL!

      • 35 John

        Racist much, Fallers?

  25. 36 Jonny R.

    They rather pound their bones into pieces than dig a hole in the ground to bury them.

    What a dishonorable way to rid of a dead loved one.

  26. 37 agrajjag

    i’ve never got around to looking at buddhism in depth, but i have a feeling i’d very much like it (as much as an athiest can.). i’d never heard of sky burials before – i think it looks fantastic! perfect adaptation to the environment, and acknowledging that the body IS just the vesel, what made the person is no longer there, so the remainder should be incorporated back into the system.

  27. Hi,

    After watching this i am proud to be Muslim, May Allah guide you alll people to accept islam best regioloin of world who teaches us how to eat how to stand and how to bath and rather guide us each and everything, and even how to bury.

    Those iam sure proud to be sky burial and talk about how we leave our loved onces in grave under sand. then dear think of this bird and human being we do eat and do shit after eating human body he also do shit and one day this bird also died. so this process evently not giving any benefit.

    Everybody belive our body is made up sand then why not handover to sand and one day we will get up from sand.

    we created from sand and then go into sand and one day will get up from sand.

    thanks

  28. 39 IceRayven

    If you think sky burial is just a little much but want to have a natural funeral, look into the growing number of natural burials in ‘green cemeteries’. The only preparation before you are buried under beautiful trees or a waving prairie, is being wrapped in a burial cloth. I thought I would find this article just horrifying, but really, it’s just all a matter of the culture where you are and THAT is what matters in this type of ceremony of life, it’s for those left behind, not those that have gone on.

  29. I wish I could read more and more hot posts like this one about transsexuals! Thank you a lot and post more!

  30. 41 Morgada

    I decided a long time ago befor even reading about sky burials that I wanted my corpse eaten by vultures. I was brought up amongst vultures in India and could see what a necessity they are in the world and the fact that they have all but become extinct has made me feel that I must give something back to them. It is the human race that has destroyed everything that is good in this world. The least I can do is offer my remains…as long as they have not been contaminated in any way.

  31. Would love to get more posts about trannies, you think is possible? Anyway bookmarked!

  32. Wow, I really wish I hadn’t started eating my supper just before reading this post! Interesting all the same, and it makes sense that the body is simply an empty vessel once we pass on.

  33. 44 Locks

    For anyone’s future “enlightenment” about the videos. The videos are actually less graphic than the photos. There’s really no gore at all in the videos. The follow-up vids are a little juicy, but the posted ones are fine to look at just to see what the beginning ceremony looks like (Bringing the wrapped body on sight) and what it looks like to have a mass amount of those gigantic birds in one area (You see nothing).

    Interesting aspect I suppose. I like to think logically about things and I can’t fully understand the significance of this except that your body is now returning to nature where it belongs. Even from a Buddhist perspective, it’s a little strange to me.


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