The rites and rituals surrounding death can tell you a great deal about a culture: their religion, their values, and their general view of the world. Some of the most famous funerary practices come out of ancient Egypt, namely Egyptian mummies. The mummification ritual sprung out of a complex mythology that informed the entire Egyptian view of the universe.
In America, death is confined to the hospital, the hospice, and the nursing home. An entire industry has sprung up around death in America and other Western countries, involving morticians, funeral homes, casket makers, and several other groups. Often, the corpse is only glimpsed, if at all, during the wake and the funeral itself. Morticians take pains to make the body appear as if it is in calm repose. Once the funeral ceremony is over, the bereaved leave and the burial is performed by graveyard caretakers, out of sight of the family.
The arrangements vary according to religious and personal taste, and of course due to economic considerations as well. For example, cremations are on the rise because on the whole they cost less than having to buy a burial plot, a casket, and a tombstone. Still, most often Americans prefer burial in a cemetery. This is no surprise given the strong Christian influence on our culture. In Christianity, there is a pervading belief in bodily resurrection. As Jesus himself was resurrected, so too will everyone who walked the Earth be resurrected into new bodies come Judgement Day (this of course varies by denomination and tradition–I’m simply generalizing for the sake of brevity).
As it is in America, so it is in Tibet. The strong Buddhist tradition in that country influences its death rites, resulting in a funerary practice that to most Westerners would seem barbaric–the Tibetan Sky Burial. Known as jhator in Tibet, it is a practice of ritual dissection wherein the body of the deceased is exposed to the elements and scavengers until their body is completely disposed of.
How precisely the ritual is performed varies depending on the economic status of the family of the deceased–it can be an expensive procedure, so sometimes the body is simply left exposed on a high rock shelf. In other instances, the so-called “body-breakers” (rogyapas ) go about the process of ritual dissection after appropriate prayers have been performed by Buddhist monks. How the dissections are performed can vary: sometimes the body-breakers allow vultures to feed on the body until only a skeleton remains, after which they take sledgehammers to the bones and pound them to dust. The powder and pulp is mixed with flour and the whole mixture is fed to smaller birds. Sometimes the body is stripped of flesh and the body parts spread around for the vultures to feast on before the pounding bones to dust part is done.
…pretty gruesome, right? Why in the heck would anyone want to be disposed of this way, and why would a family allow it, much less come to witness it? To understand the why’s, first we must look into who Tibetan Buddhists view life and death. Tibetan Buddhists (and many others) believe in rebirth. This is related to the cycle of samsara we discussed a bit in a previous entry in this series about Buddhist hell. The deceased’s rebirth is determined by his or her karma. So where does the body enter into this equation?
Well, it doesn’t. Once the life is gone from a body, it’s nothing more than a lump of flesh. The sky burial reflects this belief, and another deep belief held by Buddhists of all stripes–impermanence. Buddhists do not believe in a bodily resurrection, nor in an eternal rest. Nothing is eternal in Buddhism, save for maybe samsara itself and nirvana (but now’s not the time to go into all that!). This life and our bodies are all impermanent.
There is another facet to the practice that might seem odd to Westerners. Jhator is seen as an act of compassion on the part of the deceased and their family toward the birds that feed on his/her corpse, and toward the animals who would avoid being eaten because the vultures and other birds were sated from feasting on human flesh. Indeed, sometimes these birds eat quite well for themselves. Jhator is performed at designated charnal grounds, often near monasteries. The largest ones can attract huge flocks of vultures, who must be fended off with sticks while the rituals are being performed.
Lest you think all of this (what we’d call over here) weirdness is for religious reasons, I must add that there are some very practical economic reasons to perform sky burials. The Tibetan Plateau lay high in the Himalayas, above the tree line. So, wood is scarce, and what little bit there is probably isn’t going to be used to perform a cremation. Furthermore, the soil on the plateau is very rocky and in many places contains layers of permafrost, making burials impractical for all but the highest officials (some llamas or priests are given burials to honor their accomplishments).
Really, sky burials developed from practical economic concerns long before Buddhism came to Tibet–there’s some evidence to suggest that similar rituals occurred 11,500 years ago in that region. That does not mean of course that the religious aspect is any less important to the people of Tibet, any more than the religious aspect of our funerary rituals in the West are no less important due to economic factors. People are people no matter where they live or what faith they practice.
Still, I’m thinking I’ll pass on having my body go to the birds.