Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead

Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead

(Read the article on one page)

The tradition of Sky burials, which is also known by the name of ‘Celestial burial’, is particularly associated with the Tibetan culture, although it has existed in other civilizations throughout history. It might sound like an alarming concept for people living in our current society but its values and philosophy are surprisingly beautiful and virtuous. Choosing a humble path and honoring nature by feeding their local vultures, some people from the Tibetan culture have preferred to be given a Sky burial ceremony to terminate the existence of their physical bodies. The Tibetans believe that there is a great honor in knowing that the body will go back to nature, and nourish some of nature’s creatures, in this case, the bearded vultures or 'Dakinis' (meaning 'sky dancers'), which is the Tibetan equivalent of angels.

A sky burial is the act of leaving a corpse, cut into precise pieces by a Burial Master, exposed to the elements of nature. This Master would also be in charge of smashing and grinding the bones of the deceased body, and then leaving the prepared corpse out in their selected open site. This was their way of offering a final honorable service to their material body; sending it back to the earth, and serving as an offering of a meal to the vultures.

This form of burial often takes place at high elevation locations since the vultures are the desired creature to be fed. In addition, the physical location plays an important part in this selection of burial since there would be very little ground space that could be used as cemetery, and the ground would often be frozen, making it difficult to dig. This has therefore been the most common way of disposing dead bodies in Tibet.

A sky burial site in Yerpa Valley, Tibet

A sky burial site in Yerpa Valley, Tibet ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Tibetan Belief

According to Tibetan beliefs regarding burials and death, which is based on the Buddhist belief of reincarnation and transmigration, the soul leaves the body at the moment of death. The Sky burial represents an act of compassion, feeding the dead body which no longer has a function, to the sacred vultures as a final act of charity.

Tibetan people are not afraid of death because it is viewed as a transformation and not an ending, and, therefore, Tibetans face the idea of death with serenity and calmness. They believe that in order to have a smooth transmigration a person should leave no trace of their earthly existence, which includes their physical body.

It is a sign of bad luck, or of one’s sins, if the vultures do not devour the offered corpse because it means that it is too dirty to be eaten. The other explanation for such outcome is that the family of the deceased did not perform all the required religious funerary rites. In those cases, other animals, such as wild dogs, would be brought to eat the corpse.

Vultures feeding on the rock used to expose bodies at a sky burial outside Lhasa, Tibet

Vultures feeding on the rock used to expose bodies at a sky burial outside Lhasa, Tibet ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Process and Preparation of the Body

When a person dies, their bodies are wrapped in white cloth and placed in a corner of the house for a period of three to five days. During this time monks or lamas read scriptures aloud so that the soul can be released from purgatory. The home environment is supposed to be kept peaceful to allow a smooth passing and ascension of the soul to the heavens. All family members discontinue any other activities in order to take care with this process. When the prayer period is over, the family members pick a day for the corpse to be taken to the Sky burial site.

A body being prepared for Sky burial in Sichuan.

A body being prepared for Sky burial in Sichuan. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to Pamela Logan, “Tibetans believe that, more important than the body, is the spirit of the deceased. Following death, the body should not be touched for three days, except possibly at the crown of the head, through which the consciousness, or namshe, exits. Lamas guide the spirit in a series of prayers that last for seven weeks, as the person makes their way through the bardo--intermediate states that precede rebirth”.

Comments

Please unsubscribe me from the notifications.
Thank you

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

God the Father (represented by an old patriarch with white hair) by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515
The question of whether a god exists is heating up in the 21st century. According to a Pew survey, the percent of Americans having no religious affiliation reached 23 percent in 2014. Among such “nones,” 33 percent said that they do not believe in God – an 11 percent increase since only 2007.

Ancient Technology

The Antikythera Mechanism, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Every time ancient Greece is mentioned most people automatically think of democracy, the Olympic Games, mythology and philosophy. It seems that not many are aware of how advanced the ancient Greeks were on a technological level as well and the Antikythera Mechanism, known as the world’s first analog computer, is the brightest example of all.

Opinion

View of the “Cueva del Pirul”, one of the largest systems of interconnected caves to the East of the Pyramid of the Sun. One can notice the many rough pillars left to support the roof and a number of side passages branching out in different directions.
Few of the modern visitors to Teotihuacan are aware of the vast and mysterious underworld of caves and man-made tunnels that extends under much of the ancient site and for miles around. The existence of these tunnels has been known for centuries, but not even the most recent research has been able to solve the mystery of their origin and purpose. Very much like at Giza, in Egypt, these tunnels are rumored to connect all the main pyramids by means of underground passageways, and perhaps even lead to the records of a lost civilization.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article