Scattered: Sky Burials in Tibet

People in the West are all too familiar with the traditional burials of our loved ones, whose bodies are enclosed into a wooden coffin and left to rest six feet under the surface of the ground. Most people find comfort in thinking that the dead are resting peacefully, but very few think of the actual decaying process that starts right after the descent in the bowels of the earth. But this isn’t the case all over the world and some cultures know exactly what happens to bodies after death.

In the Far East, people have other ways of dealing with their dead and such is the case with the archaic practice of sky burials or jhator in Tibet, first mentioned in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol, a 12th-century Buddhist treatise that explains what rituals have to be performed when death is closing in or has taken place. A sky burial consists of a ritual dissection usually performed at dawn by a priest or rogyapa, who segments the dead body into relatively small pieces that are left as offerings on the top of a mountain for birds of prey or other animals. Vultures are summoned by burning juniper incense and they are thought to be dakinis, the Tibetan angels that guide the soul into heaven where it awaits rebirth, which is one of the main teachings of Buddhism.

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Vultures gather to eat during a sky burial at Seda Monastery

Due to high altitudes there is no lumber for coffins and with a thin layer of soil that covers the permafrost and solid rock, burying the dead into the ground is basically impossible for the Tibetans. One of the most significant sky burial sites is Drigung Monastery, originally founded in 1179, about 75 miles north-east of Lhasa.

Monks in Drigung Monastery, Tibet

Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to witness sky burials without fear in order to come at peace with the harsh reality of physical death. Jhator reinforces the importance of Buddhist virtues and it is considered an act of generosity and compassion. The dead body is an empty vessel and it is no longer needed while waiting for reincarnation.

A jhator was filmed, with permission from the family, for Frederique Darragon’s documentary Secret Towers of the Himalayas in 2008. The camera work was deliberately careful to never show the body itself, while documenting the procedure, birds, and tools.

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