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Fed to the Vultures… Tibetan Sky Burials

All humans must die, but how we approach that death is subject to the culture we live in. In the west, we fear death deeply, and as such have a million ways to stave off our demise. We would rather keep a soulless corpse hooked up to a machine than let nature take its course. Elsewhere in the world, like in Tibet, death is treated with respect and as a passage that we all must journey through to our next life. Tibetan Buddhists follow the guidance of their death handbook, the Bardo Thodol, a guide to the stages of death and the pathway to reincarnation written in the 8th century CE. But this journey is for the soul, not for the body, which is just the soft shell we are encased in. Unlike the Christian traditions that many western nations have founded their death practices on, which speak of resurrection of the intact body, in Tibet the body is seen as part of nature’s cycle and not the human it once was.

During a Sky Burial, the corpse is given to the creatures of the sky – the vultures – in a ritual called jhator. In smaller villages, the corpse is carried by a friend or family member to an area where it is left exposed for scavengers to eat. In larger communities, there are lama burial masters or rogyapa, basically the Tibetan equivalent of a grave digger – but instead of digging graves, their job is to butcher corpses. There is a designated site for the burial, high in the mountains, known as the dürtro, and once the corpse has arrived, the lama or the rogyapa begins breaking the body down. Juniper is burned to attract the vultures, and then the body is sliced and flayed, limbs removed and bones crushed, so that when the vultures begin their feast they are able to consume the entire corpse, leaving nothing behind to rot. What to another culture would be seen as a desecration or even a psychotic act, in Tibet is a practice that is sacred and essential. When you think about how this works – the dead body given as an offering to creatures that will be nourished by it, who will consume it and use it to soar high above the Himalayas – the practice of buying a fancy, embossed and silk-lined casket to rot in, useless to the world around you, seems wasteful and ridiculous. Only human beings would decide that unlike every other creature on the planet, our bodies are too special for anybody to eat. Below, watch a video of the process of jhator and check out some stunning photos of a sky burial taken by Bo Løvschall – warning, they are graphic!

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