Tibetan Sky Burials

Sky burials (or celestial burials, as they are also called) are the burial rites of choice for the Tibetans. After a member of the community has died, the body is cut into pieces by a Burial Master, and then taken to a selected site, usually in an area of high elevation. This is because the corpse is then supposed to be eaten by vultures, who tend to congregate at higher altitudes. After the vultures have consumed the body, the belief is that they take the body away to heavens where the soul of the deceased person remains until they are ready for their next reincarnation. This practice is believed to have been practiced for as many as 11,000 years, but there is little written evidence, or physical evidence, due to the fact that the remains are ingested by the vultures or other animals.

For Tibetans, the sky burial serves both practical and spiritual functions. Often, the ground is frozen, making it difficult to dig graves, making sky burials an appealing alterative. Also, some of the central values in Tibetan culture revolve around being humble, generous, and honoring of nature; sky burials allow the physical bodies of Tibetans to be returned to the earth in a way that generously provides a meal for the vultures and very minimally disturbs the earth. Because of their belief in reincarnation, death is seen as more of a transition as opposed to an ending. They believe the soul moves on from the body at the very instant of death, leaving very little room for attachment to the physical body after death. In fact, in order for the soul of the person to have an easy transition into their next life, the Tibetans believe there should be no trace left of the physical body after death, providing another advantage of this practice.

Sohma, Marina. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. N.p., 15 Nov. 2016. Web. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/sky-burial-tibet-s-ancient-tradition-honoring-dead-007016.

2 responses to “Tibetan Sky Burials

  1. I think it’s very interesting to see how different cultures around the world approach death (and life) and how this affects death ritual and burial practices. You gave a great summary of the Tibetan sky burials and the reasons for why they do so. The first thing that personally just stuck out to me and makes me a little queasy was that the body has to be cut into pieces. This obviously has to happen for practical reasons for this ritual, but I was wondering how this affects or what this says about how the Tibetians value human life (if it says anything at all even). Like how easily is the Burial Master able to cut up another person? Does everyone get to see the body pieces? Next, I understand their theoretical concept of being one with nature and reincarnation, but I was wondering how they approach the practical equivalence of that. Do they just leave the body up there and check back at a later time? Do they watch the vultures eat the body? What do they do with the bones? It’s interesting to see how cultures that believe in reincarnation approach death differently. This ritual was fun to learn about, but there’s just a lot logistical questions, which I’m sure will be answered if we research more.

  2. This was an extremely topic to read about. I understand the practicality of a sky burial, since the ground is almost always frozen making it difficult to burry the dead. I also understand the cultural values of sky burials; honoring the earth and the animals. However, is there a specific amount of time the body has to be consumed in for the ritual to be successful? Does someone have to check and see if the body has been consumed? These are just some of the questions that I have. What is hard for me to wrap my head around is how when someone dies, their body is cut into pieces and feed to vultures. To me this seems quite gruesome, but that is probably because in Western society we see dismemberment of the body as an act of violence and rage. I also find the importance of the vulture interesting because vultures are scavengers and they are quite ugly birds, so it’s interesting that they were identified as an integral part of this ceremony. The dismemberment and feeding of the body to birds raised some questions for me as well. Does the family or loved ones of the deceased watch the Burial Master dismember the body and carry it to a higher elevation? Is the whole process watched, as a sort of funeral service? Finally, if Tibetans believe that no part of the body should be left, what is done with the bones that remain (if they are left behind)?

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