Sky Burial


Sky Burial

Where Else to Release the Spirit?

In a culture where we idealize and even worship our physical selves, it may seem a sacrilege to offer up a body to a flock of vultures. To Tibetan Buddhists, our physical bodies are simply vessels for the spirit. Offering the remains to these birds, which are regarded as sacred, releases the spirit to the sky as an act of reverence and liberation.

To let the remains decay would be a disgrace. A Tibetan burial is distinguished by the social ranking of the deceased. The most elaborate ceremonies, Stupa burials, or Tumulus burial earth mounds, are reserved for lamas. High-ranking monks qualify for fire burial or cremation. Water and earth burials are conducted for those who rank most low in social status, and tree burials are reserved for children.

The Sky Burial is the most common ritual by far. The body of the deceased is placed in a fetal position to enable the soul to leave the world as it entered, and is kept in the house until a fortuitous day for the ceremony. Professional burial masters handle these ceremonies. The body is carried to a celestial plateau, juniper incense is burned and sutras read. Here the body is prepared for the condors. It considered is a virtue to offer the body to save small animals, which might have been prey. If the body is eaten, the person is believed to be free of sin and ascends peacefully to nirvana. Any flesh left untouched by the birds is believed to represent the sins of the deceased and is burned.

As our cultures differ, respect must be shown when visiting. Tibetans are encouraged to witness this ritual, to confront death openly and to feel the impermanence of life, but strangers are not allowed to view sky burial ceremonies. It seems reasonable that we westerners respect that tradition as tourists, and as humans, to take a moment to weigh our valuation of body and spirit.

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