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Tibetan Sky Burial Culture

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Tibetan Sky Burial Culture

Brandon Andres
Medicine Hat College
IDST 485 – Death and Dying
Susan Sverdrup-Phillips
Due: March 10, 2014

Word Count = 1985

The most popular method of disposal of the dead in Tibet is a sky burial. This will seem exceedingly savage and disrespectful to many others outside this culture. A sky burial is the funeral and burial process of feeding a dismantled and cut up human corpse to vultures. If one is to fully study the country of Tibet and its peoples’ history then one can understand the reasonable logic to why this form of burial is not savage or disrespectful to a being. This Sky Burial tradition is still the most popular and desired way that Tibetans are buried after their death due to their enlightened beliefs. Firstly, this essay will state and discuss the historical reasons why sky burials would have started and became prevalent in Tibet. Second, this will look at the process and impacts of performing a Sky Burial. Lastly, it will discuss the debates of having a ceremonial sky burials in Tibet.
In North American culture the most common and traditional method are to use caskets and accompany it by some type of ritual or ceremony or else the most common alternative to disposing of human remains is cremation (Basmajian and Coutts 2010:309-310) This method in North America is so common to hide the physical corpse from others and bury or cremate it that when people are presented with a sky burial one might think the “profession involves something between a weird science of dissection and witchcraft” and “anyone with a sensitive nature would be thoroughly shocked by the images” (Woeser 2012:92). Sky burials may appear like this to many people outside of Tibet but it is a form of compassion and gratitude towards the deceased. According to Evans-Wentz “a human body is said to consist of four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, and it should be returned to these elements as quickly as possible” (Evans-Wentz 2000:27). These elements are believed to be the only methods of disposing a body properly so that the spirit can have a great afterlife. According to Tsomo Sky Burials spring from the Bön tradition. Disposing of the dead in this manner surely reflects the environment. Since the earth was too hard to dig graves, and fuel for cremation was scarce and costly. He believes the only practical way to do this is with sky burials (Tsomo 2001:152). In Tibet because of the land being too difficult to work with and needing to return the body to one of the four elements, Tibetans found that the element of “Air – the birds which devour the corpse being the denizens of the air” (Evans-Wentz 2000:27) was the quickest way of returning the body to the elements. The land being so unforgiving and harsh in Tibet, sky burials would be economically viable to their group which would allow them to conserve time and their resources for survival by them. With Tibetans not spending time digging graves in the hard dirt, or using very scarce amounts of fuel to dispose human remains it provided them with a benefit to survive in the environment. The Sky Burials became very reasonable for survival that it was incorporated in their Tibetan indigenous Bön and Buddhist beliefs of returning someone’s body back to the elements. Returning someone’s corpse back to the elements was a form of generosity to the spirit and a way to protect the society of the living. Evans-Wentz stated that “quickly dissipating the elements of the dead body, prevent vampirism” (Evans-Wentz 2000:26) and it became known to Woeser “if the dead are not given a good sky burial, they can become like the very scary ghosts painted in traditional murals” (Woeser 2012:97). Tibetans thought that if they failed to return the human body to the elements quickly then the spirit will attempt to return and would harm the society of the living. This practice of a sky burial is the best option for Tibet, because of them to swiftly eliminate the body in order to prevent the spirit from returning to the mortal world.
The main process of preforming a sky burial has been practiced for many years in many different sites around Tibet and “still prevails among 80% of the 5 million Tibetan people” (Lu, Ke, Zeng, Gong, and Ci 2009:167). The process is described by Goss and Klass; at first they “place the body on a flat rock representing a mandala and begin to slice across the chest cavity of the body according to the instructions of the lama or tantric adept” (Goss and Klass 1997:385). This process of cutting the body; “for burial takes practice; it cannot be done in an arbitrary way” (Woeser 2012:97) meaning that only the lama which is the high priest must be correctly trained to handle the job of slicing the body up and throwing the pieces to the vultures for them to consume. This process is important for the vultures to consume everything even the bones are “hammered into dust and mixed with barley flour” (Goss and Klass 1997:385) so the vultures will consume it all so that the body is returned to the element of air. The total time of a sky burial is “according to the carcass’s size and the number of griffons feeding on the carcass”, this does not state the average time it takes the vultures to feed on a human carcass, but gives examples that “a sheep was consumed by 7 griffons in 4 to 5 hr, a horse by 22 griffons during 2 d, and 3 yaks by 7 griffons over 3 d.” (Lu et al. 2009:169). Sky burials could last for hours but with the lama cutting up the human body would the make the process of the vultures feeding quicker than feeding on a whole intact corpse. The Tibetans believe that their mode of dying is “generosity by donating one’s own severed limbs and internal organs to hungry ghosts and spirits” (Tsomo 2001:153). They consider the vultures to be the hungry ghost and spirits and it is right for them to satisfy these beings. The vultures are believed to determine much about the individual they are consuming and their family. “Sometimes only a few come, even if a human corpse is here… it is because the person had committed so many sins” and if the vultures “won’t eat the corpse, it is because the family of the dead person failed to perform the religious funeral rites.” (Woeser 2012:99). Tibetans have believe that how the vultures act, determines the life the person had lived in their life.
Debates about the sky burials in Tibet have begun start up ever since China took control of Tibet. In much of Tibet and the rest of China, people have debated whether or not the process of sky burials is actually beneficial for vultures in the area. The people against sky burials found that the amount vultures consume of “human corpses are minor, only 1% and 2%, respectively.” (Lu et al. 2009:169). Yaks and sheep are more commonly found in the area for vultures to get a significant amount of food for them to survive. Sky burials are not required for vultures to live in their environment because they have adapted to find nondomestic food away from the human society. At sky burials sites “human corpses aren’t sent to the site every day” (Woeser 2012:98), which supports that vultures must adapt to find their daily corpses in other areas in Tibet and not completely rely on sky burial sites. According to Lu “at one sky burial site, we were told by local people that about 100 griffons were found dead after feeding on a human carcass” (Lu et al. 2009:170), this may be due to from diseases or poisons that are transferred from human corpses to griffons. One might say that sky burials are harmful to the griffons because of diseases or poisons that humans have immunities to but the griffons may not have any immunity to these. People supporting the sky burials for benefiting the vultures indicate the “Himalayan griffons are widespread throughout the Tibetan plateau” which supports that compared to “declines or extinctions of many avian scavengers throughout the world” (Lu et al. 2009:170), the griffons in Tibet still have healthy populations. Sky burials are most common in Tibet where the Himalayan griffon are living and the griffon found in other places of the world have populations declining which supports that the disposal of corpses by sky burials does not harm and could benefit the Himalayan griffon in the area. The Tibetans had commonly employed earth burial when death has been caused by a very contagious and dangerous disease (Evans-Wentz 2000:26). The Chinese government has passed new regulation that “does not allow sky burials for people who have died of toxicities or infectious diseases” (Lu et al. 2009:169). Therefore risk of diseases and toxins harming the griffons is kept to a minimum and should not be a concern for the health of the Himalayan griffon. The Tibetans and Chinese debated during the time of the Cultural Revolution that the sky burials “was considered to be among the Four Olds” (Woeser 2012:100). This means that the sky burials are a part of the old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. In the past the Chinese had banned sky burials in Tibet in an attempt to revolutionize the culture for the modern world. Tibetans still had practiced other burial methods to return the body to the four elements by “either buried in the ground or secretly thrown into river” but still many families feared that “the souls of those who did not go through the sky burial ceremony could not escape from purgatory, and most probably became ghosts” (Woeser 2012:100). The sky burials should be continued, because it is a tradition that has been practiced for many years and it marks the identity of the people of Tibet. It is a form of peace to the family that have lost their loved one because it provides meaning to Tibetans that the spirit is no harm and is in a better place.
In conclusion, the reasonable logic to why this form of burial became desired in the culture is not savage or disrespectful to a being can be seen with the environment being extremely limited of resources to allow for another form of burial to return the body to the four elements. The element of air which is associated with the birds became the accept method of burial which prevented the spirits from returning to the mortal world. It was found that the griffons and vultures are not harmed by this burial method and it provides people with a sense of closure. More research is required on this burial method’s impact on the griffons to allow more knowledge on whether sky burials benefit or hinder them. Also research should be done on the opinions and views of the deceased and their family who desire a sky burial but are unable to get one due to their death being from disease or a body is no longer present from a violent death. The sky burial should be conserved and protected as their culture heritage for many generations to allow the Tibet people to feel comfortable with the aspect of dying. Acceptance of this method of burial should be consider not savage and respectful to others outside this culture because it provides all of us with a closer understanding of death.

Basmajian, Carlton. and Christopher Coutts. 2010. “Planning for the Disposal of the Dead.” Journal Of The American Planning Association 76(3).
Retrieved February 27, 2014 (
Evans-Wentz W.Y. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 2000. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or the After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English Rendering. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
Goss, Roberta E. and Dennis Klass. 1997. “Tibetan buddhism and the resolution of grief: the bardo-thodol for the dying and the grieving.” Death Studies 21(4). Retrieved February 27, 2014 (
Lu, Xin., Dianhua Ke, Xianhai Zeng, Guohong Gong, and Ren Ci. 2009. “Status, Ecology, and Conservation of the Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis (Aves, Accipitridae) in the Tibetan Plateau.” AMBIO - A Journal Of The Human Environment 38(3). Retrieved February 20, 2014 (
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. (2001). “Death, Identity, and Enlightenment in Tibetan Culture.” International Journal Of Transpersonal Studies 20.
Retrieved February 19, 2014 (
Woeser. (2012). “Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master.” Manoa 24(1).
Retrieved February 26, 2014 (…...

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