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Sky Burial in Tibet and Other Four Funeral Customs

Time: 09-07-2019 This Article is Composed by BudgetTibetTour

Sky burial is the burial tradition of Bon that has been passing down to the present day. People take the corpse to the celestial burial platform and a professional celestial burial master would dismember the body and let the body to be devoured by vultures. For Tibetan people, sky burial is a way to save the soul of the dead. It is a belief, not for obtaining, but for sacrificing and devoting. It also represents Tibetan people’s attitude for life and their reverence for nature. Apart from common sky burial, there are also other funeral customs such as stupa burial, water burial, earth burial and tree burial.

Sky Burial in Tibet  
Sky Burial in Tibet

What Is Sky Burial?

The sky burial here, also called bird burial, refers to the funeral custom of Tibetan people. When a Tibetan die, people would take the corpse to the professional celestial burial master and let the body to be devoured by vultures after reserving the corpse for three or five days. The professional celestial burial master has a special operating floor which is the celestial burial platform. The platform is usually made of a huge stone with a hole on it or made by people with stones. The general procedures of sky burial is: first, put the corpse on the platform with the back upwards, dismember the arms, legs and the body, wait for the vultures to eat them; then, break the bones to pieces, and put the mixture of remains of the corpse and Tsampa into the stone hole, and wait for the vultures to eat them up. In the process, Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul.

Why They Do Sky Burial?

As for why they do sky burial, main reasons are:

Natural environment

It is cold in Tibetan area, so corpses could not decompose if buried underground for a long time. If severe environmental transformation happens, it is likely to result in disease such as plague. In addition, there are few trees in the cold Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which makes it difficult to make coffins. And the fragile grassland is the foundation for the survival of Tibetan people, so they are reluctant to destroy even a piece of the grassland to bury the dead.

Tibetan Funeral Cutoms
Tibetan Funeral Cutoms

The influence of Tibetan Buddhism

Jataka Talesrecorded the stories of Sakyamuni of previous births of cutting his flesh to feed the vulture and sacrificing his body to feed the tiger. When Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, these stories gave Tibetan people who believed in Buddhism inspiration. The philosophy of Buddhism holds that soul has nothing to do with body. Therefore, Tibetan Buddhism instructs people that after the soul ascends peacefully to the Paradise, the body would rather be given to all living creatures than stay on the earth. Therefore, in order to follow the example of Buddha, people give their body to the vultures on the plateau. It is their last time to protect the natural environment and also their last offer to the secular world.

Procedures of Sky Burial in Tibet

Step 1. Preparation and Mantra Chanting

If a Tibetan die, the corpse is wrapped in white cloth and placed in a corner of the house for three or five days, during which monks or lamas are asked to read the scripture aloud so that the souls can be released from purgatory. In the meantime, the family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for ascension of souls into heaven.

Sky Burial Ceremony in Tibet
Sky Burial Ceremony in Tibet

Step 2. Body Dissection for Vultures to Eat

Later, monks or lamas will choose a lucky day for sky burial. On the day before the burial, the family members take off the clothes of the dead and fix the corpse in a fetal position (symbolizing heading for rebirth), and ask the body carrier or use yaks or horses to carry the body away to the celestial burial platform. Relatives would burn the butter tea nearby to attract condors, Lamas would chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul, and a professional celestial burial master deals with the body while chanting. Upon the completion of dealing with the body, vultures are called to eat the body. When finishing eating, vultures would fly up into the sky, which signifies the dead has ascended successfully to the Heaven.

Where Do Sky Burials Take Place

In fact, there are two well-known sites for sky burial in Tibet. One is the Drigung Thil Monastery, the other is Serthar sky burial site.

Drigung Thil Monastery, located on the riverside of Xuerong River of Maizhokunggar County east to Lhasa city, is one of the most famous sky burial sites in the world. According to the legend, the soul of people who have been experienced a ceremony of "abhiseca" by the Living Buddha of Drigung Thil Monastery would be freed from the body and enter the state of peace rather than going to hell. Therefore, a lot of people travel a long distance to take the dead here.

Sky Burial - Drigung Thil Monastery
Sky Burial - Drigung Thil Monastery

Serthar, a well-known sky burial site, is located between Larung Gar Buddhist Academy and Serthar County (with an altitude of 4010 metres). It takes about half an hour by car. The time to hold sky burial is 13:00-16:00. Sky burial could also be seen in other places in Sichuan such as Taktsang Lhamo Monastery, but there are sky burials almost every day in Serthar. Moreover, due to its good Feng shui, family members would travel a long distance to take the dead here. Watching sky burials in Serthar requires certain courage and tolerance. Not everyone could endure the scene in which the body is dismembered and eaten up by vultures. But the scene is truly shocking. As the old saying goes, life is uncertain, and why are you afraid of death?

Sky Burial - Serthar
Sky Burial - Serthar

Note: Sky burial is a way living people bury the dead. The disturbance from strangers or tourists is not expected. Therefore, it is not advisable to watch the sky burial and take photos in moral sense. But some families do not object to watching the ritual. It all depends. It is certain that you should keep quiet during the ritual. According to the words of Tibetan people, not allowing people to attend and watch the ceremony is for their own sake for the reason that if the soul of the buried people is evil, bystanders would bring the evil soul back on earth which would endanger themselves and other people.

Values of Sky Burial

Sky burial forges the Tibetan people’s quality of equality, optimism, simplicity and love for nature.

Equality - Anyone who comes to the burial site is the bare body with an equal burial ritual regardless of the different status when they are alive. Sky burial gives people an ideal view of common people and reflects Tibetan people’s plain consciousness on life and death.

Optimism - They are not too sad and despairing for the death of family members. The living ones have beautiful wishes emotionally and face death calmly. They only pray that the dead could be reborn in a place of happiness and have a blessed destiny in the next life.

Simplicity - Only those with good moral character could have sky burial after death. Those who commit crimes in violation of the law could only have earth burial (earth burial sends the dead to hell in Tibetan Buddhism). This urges Tibetan people to become righteous and upright with high morality.

Love for nature - Tibetan people give the corpse to vultures to consume, which reflects Tibetan people’s philosophy of ecological protection.

Other Tibet Funeral Customs

Due to different natural environment in Tibet, there are other forms of funeral customs.

1. Earth Burial

To the Tibetans, earth burial is the inferior form. Earth burial is only practiced for two kinds of people when they die. Those who suffer from infectious diseases such as lepra, anthrax or smallpox will be buried in this way in order to prevent the plague; those with misbehavior or sinfulness such as robber, murderer or those killed by others will be buried in this way in order to punish them and put them into hell. The bodies are usually not deeply buried so that wolves or dogs would dig them out and eat them up.

Water Burial Site in Tibet 
Water Burial Site in Tibet

2. Water Burial

Water burial is popular in the southeast part of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, in particular south or southeast of Tibet. Although there is also high mountain meadow in this area, the location in Hengduan Mountainous Region endows it with abundant forest resources and a number of rivers. Therefore, people here choose to use waters to lead the dead to go through the road to death.

3. Tree Burial

Tree burial is another popular custom in southeast Tibet. But this is a burial only for dead children. In Zhuolonggou of Bomê County, Nyingchi, there is a vast tree burial cluster. A lot of cases wrapped by cloth are hung on the tress. Local people thinks that the dead children are pure and clean and they should not be buried in an ordinary way. Therefore, they choose the form of tree burial and hope that these children could grow up sturdily in their next life like the towering trees.

Tree Burial in Tibet
Tree Burial in Tibet

4. Fire Burial

Cremation was reserved for living Buddha, feudal lords and aristocrats in the past. The corpse is bound in a sitting position and carried to the fire burial site. Then the corpse is put on a stack of wood and straw supported by firewood around. Family members would invite sainted monk to chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul. After the burning of the body, the ashes will be taken to the top of a high mountain and scattered with the wind or into the river. After the cremation, sainted living Buddha and sainted monks would leave uncertain amount of Śarīra. People would collect the Śarīra and reserve them in the stupa for believers to worship.

5. Stupa Burial

Stupa burial is the funeral ritual of the highest level. It is a privilege reserved for very venerable people such as Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama and some prestigious Living Buddha. After the nirvana of those people, the body is wiped with saline water repeatedly, and the embalmed corpse is dehydrated and washed with spice water and camphor water, then wiped again with mercury and saffron, and wrapped with silk and dressed with Kasaya. Finally, the corpse is moved to the gold and silver stupa and preserved for worshiping.

Stupa Burial in Tibet
Stupa Burial in Tibet

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user portrait Mr. Mo*** from: Travelers' Questions Might Help

I'm interested in the 14 day trip from Lhasa to Nepal trip. In in January or February would be great. how much would that be? is there space?

best regards Mo***

Answered by Nancy

Dear Mo***,

Greetings from Nancy at Budget Tibet Tour, thanks for visiting our website and sending your inquiry. Sorry we do not have any group tour in Jan or Feb to Kailash as there will be heavy snow and the road will be blocked, and also the area would be closed, and no one do the business there, no hotel, no restaurants there. So from Nov to March we would not send any groups there.
If you would like to do this tour, you must plan it from April to Oct. and at present we have the group tour in next 6th May and 29th May, and we will have more available date in future. if you are interested in joining in this, please kindly let me know. Best regards.

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