Sky Burials

There is no more stark a contrast between Tibetan and Western religion than in the ceremonies surrounding death. Early Tibetan kings were buried, and the holy are still cremated and their ashes enshrined in chörten. But where soft earth and kindling are rare resources, ordinary Tibetans are honored through jhator.

Bodies of the deceased arrive having already undergone rituals over the preceding three days. A lama has recited prayers from the Book of the Dead to help the soul on its journey to rebirth. The body arrives wrapped in cloth, which rogyapas (designated caretakers) remove to cut the hair and break up the body with a large knife. It is believed the soul has already departed when the vultures descend. To confront death openly and without fear is to watch these massive birds tear at the flesh. Through all of this, there is no open mourning by loved ones. This final act of compassion to return the deceased back to earth evokes a sober joy.

Sky burials are funeral services and, naturally, Tibetans are often very unhappy about camera-toting foreigners going to sky-burial sites. The Chinese authorities do not like it either and may fine foreigners who attend a burial. You should never pay to see a sky burial and you should never take photos. Even if Tibetans offer to take you to a sky-burial site, it is unlikely that other Tibetans present will be very happy about it. As tempting as it may be for some, attending a sky burial is never recommended, particularly if you have not been expressly invited.