Sky burial site
Tibetans believe that the cessation of breathing is only the first stage of death. Afterwards, they believe, the soul separates out of the various ‘subtle elements.” First, the earth elements dissolve into the water elements. As this happens the dead loses his sense of sight and feels like he is shriveling up. As the water elements dissolve into the air element the dead losses his hearing and feels surrounded by smoke. After the soul separates from the body, various levels of consciousness disappear and the deceased emerges into translucent light. This is when Tibetans believe that true death has occurred.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the moment of death is a time for transforming a person's consciousness. Tibetan Buddhists have a ceremony called phowa to aid in the liberation of consciousness or enlightenment at the time of death. During the ceremony, the phowa prayer is recited: "Through your blessing, grace, and guidance, through the power of the light that streams from you: May all my negative karma, destructive emotions, obscurations [withholdings], and blockages be purified and removed, May I know myself forgiven for all the harm I may have thought and done, May I accomplish this profound practice of phowa and die a good and peaceful death, And through the triumph of my death, may I be able to benefit all other beings, living or dead." [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

According to the BBC: “Tibetan Buddhism emphasises awareness of death and impermanence. Everything is always dying — the cells of our bodies are dying even while we live, reminding us of our own impermanence. And all the living things around us are dying, too. This awareness should not produce sadness or despair, nor should it cause a Buddhist to start a frantic pursuit of the impermanent pleasures of life. Instead, it should lead the Buddhist to see the value of every moment of existence, and be diligent in their meditation and other religious practice. Awareness of death, combined with the understanding of the impermanence of everything, leads the Buddhist to realise that only spiritual things have any lasting value. [Source: BBC |::|]

Tibetan Buddhists use visualisation meditations and other exercises to imagine death and prepare for the bardo. They work towards a holistic understanding and acceptance of death as an inevitable part of their journey. Another way of preparing for death is to take part in helping those who have died through their experience in the bardo. This not only aids the dead, but enables the living practitioner to gain a real experience of the bardo, before they themselves enter it. Even those who cannot gain the spiritual awareness to have a consciousness of the bardo are helped by achieving a greater experience of the impermanence of everything. |::|

Tibetan views about death are shaped by Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Tibetan people are not afraid of death. Death is viewed as a transformation not an end.Tibetans face death calmly because they believe death does not terminate a person's life, but indicates rebirth. Tibetan are encouraged to witness death and the disposal of bodies so they do not fear death or are in awe of it. This is one reason why ritual objects are often made from human bones. After death, the body is kept in a sitting position for 24 hours while a lama recites passages from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to help guide the dead to the afterlife. Three days after death the deceased is blessed with morning prayers and taken to a monastery for the funeral.

Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan Studies — Tibetan Religion Sky Burial Tibet Tours ciolek.com/WWWVLPages ; tibet-tours.com ;


Tibetans believe that an individual’s souls remain in “bardo” (bar do), a special zone for the newly dead, for 49 days after death, during which time they enter a new body (that of a human, a hell being, a god, or an animal) to start a new cycle of life, death and rebirth. On each of the 49 days the deceased passes through a new level. After true death has occurred the dead begins his journey towards rebirth and this may involve communion with gods, demons, hungry ghosts or a trip to hell. All this occurs with the understanding that post-death experiences are not real, but projections of consciousness that causes birth, death and rebirth. This recurrent process of life, death, and rebirth continues until an individual achieves enlightenment. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

According to the BBC: “Bardo is the state between death and rebirth. The different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have different understandings of this state which is regarded as lasting for 49 days. The experience of a person during bardo depends on their spiritual training during life. An untrained person is thought to be confused as to where they are, and may not realise that they have died. People are often unwilling to give up attachment to their previous life — and their negative emotions — may cause their rebirth to be less good than it would otherwise have been. [Source: BBC |::|]

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, the dead person is helped through bardo by a lama who reads prayers and performs rituals from the Book of the Dead, advising the deceased to break free from attachment to their past life and their dead body. In some schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the lama will actively help the dead person to transfer their consciousness from their body, in preparation for rebirth.

Many Tibetan Buddhists believe that it is possible for those left behind to assist the dead person on their journey by doing spiritual work that increases the merits of the deceased and thus helps them to a better rebirth. During the 49 day period the dead can see clearly into the minds of those left behind, which allows the living to help the dead by thinking good thoughts, meditating on Buddha and other virtuous beings, and engaging in spiritual practices.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

Tibetan Book of the Dead is one of the great texts of Tibetan Buddhism, and a bestseller in the west. The English title is not a translation of the Tibetan title. The title in Tibetan is best translated as something like “Liberation Through Understanding the Between" or "Great Liberation Through Hearing during the Intermediate State". In Tibet it is known as "Liberation through Hearing". [Source: BBC |::|]

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” deals with the experiences of a person as they pass between death and rebirth. It has traditionally been used to help guide the dead while in a state between death and their next rebirth. Texts are usually read to the dying as they are dying and in the days after they are dead.

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is believed to be loosely based on the 14th-century mortuary texts read at funerals. Newsweek described it as "the most popular faux Buddhist volume in English." Over the years it has been offered as proof of spiritual evolution, as a justification of the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD, and as empirical evidence of the "science of death."

According to the book itself “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” was composed by an 8th-century lama named Padma Sambhava, who is perhaps a mythical figure. He is credited with predicting that Buddhism would be persecuted in the 9th century, which it was, and had the texts hidden in cave. The texts were reportedly found by the Tibetan scholar Karma Lingpa, who is credited with spreading and popularizing the them.

Texts From the Tibetan Book of the Dead

“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” texts vary from place to place. They consist mainly of preparatory prayers, instructions on how navigate the complicated death process and exhortations to the deceased to be clearheaded and alert during the death process. The various prayers are addressed to a wide range of gurus, guides, and bodhisattvas that are supposed to provide assistance.

The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the moment of death. The second part, Chonyid Bardo, deals with the states which supervene immediately after death. The third part, Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth instinct and of prenatal events.

The main body of the text begins with the exhortation: “Hey! Noble One...Now the time has come for you to seek the way. Just as your breath stops, the clear light of the first “between — will dawn as previously described to you by your teacher. Your outer breath stops and you experience reality stark and vivid like space, your immaculate naked awareness dawning clear and void without horizon or center . At that instant, you yourself must recognize it as yourself, you must stay with that experience.”

The goal is to attain the best possible realm. “Choose your continent for rebirth....Using your clairvoyance, enter a womb in a place where Buddhism has spread. Caution is required, for even if you are reborn magically in a heap of dung, you would get the notion that impure mass smelled delicious and you would be reborn in it by the force of your attraction. Therefor you should not adhere to whatever appearance occurs, and you must discount any signs that trigger attachment or aversion. Then choose a good womb...as the child of a holy man, an adept, or of a clan with impeccable Buddhist lineage.”

Passage from the Tibetan Book of the Dead

On selection from Death and Intermediate States the Tibetan Book of the Dead reads: “When the expiration hath ceased, the vital-force will have sunk into the nerve-centre of Wisdom and the Knower will be experiencing the Clear Light of the natural condition 3. Then the vital force, being thrown backwards and flying downwards through the right and left nerves 4 the Intermediate State (Bardo) momentarily dawns. The above [directions] should be applied before [the vital force hath] rushed into the left nerve [after first having traversed the navel nerve-centre]. The time [ordinarily necessary for this motion of the vital-force] is as long as the inspiration is still present, or about the time required for eating a meal. [Source: Eliade Page]

Then the manner of application [ of the instructions ] is: When the breathing is about to cease, it is best if the Transference hath been applied efficiently; if [the application] hath been ineffident, then [address the deceased] thus: “nobly-born [so and so by name], the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path [in reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself-, and abide in that state.

Having read this, repeat it many times in the ear of the person dying, even before the expiration hath ceased, so as to impress it on the mind [of the dying one]. If the expiration is about to cease, turn the dying one over on the right side, which posture is called the 'Lying Posture of a Lion.' The throbbing of the arteries [on the right and left side of the throat] is to be pressed. If the person dying be disposed to sleep, or if the sleeping state advances, that should be arrested, and the arteries pressed gently but firmly. Thereby the vital-force will not be able to return from the median-nerve and will be sure to pass out through the Brahmanic aperture.5 Now the real setting-face-to-face is to be applied.

At this moment, the first glimpsing of the Bardo of the Clear Light of Reality, which is the Infallible Mind of the Dharma-Kaya, is experienced by all sentient beings. After the expiration hath completely ceased, press the nerves of sleep firmly; and, a lama, or a person higher or more learned than thyself, impress in these words, thus: “Reverend Sir, now that thou art experiencing the Fundamental Clear Light, try to abide in that state which now thou art experiencing.”

And also in the case of any other person the reader shall set him face-to-face thus: “Nobly-born [so-and-so], listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. 0 nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.

Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha. Thine own consciousness, not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect, shining and blissful,-these two,-are inseparable. The union of them is the Dharma-Kaya state of Perfect Enlightenment. Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light-Buddha Amitabha.

Knowing this is sufficient. Recognizing the voidness of thine own intellect to be Buddhahood, and looking upon it as being thine own consciousness, is to keep thyself in the [state of the] divine mind of the Buddha. Repeat this distinctly and dearly three or [even] seven times. That will recall to the mind [of the dying one] the former [i.e. when living] setting-face-to-face by the guru. Secondly, it will cause the naked consciousness to be recognized as the Clear Light; and, thirdly, recognizing one's own self [thus], one becometh permanently united with the Dharma-Kaya and liberation will be certain.

Tibetan Book of the Dead on Bardo

On Bardo the Tibetan Book of the Dead reads: If when dying, one is familiar with this state, the wheel of rebirth is stopped and liberation is instantaneously achieved. But such spiritual efficiency is so very rare that the normal mental condition of the dying person is unequal to the supreme feat of holding on to the state in which the Clear Light shines. There follows a progressive descent into lower and lower states of the Bardo existence, and finally rebirth. immediately after the first state of Chikhai Bardo comes the second stage, when the consciousness-principle leaves the body and says to itself. 'Am I dead, or am I not dead?' without being able to determine.] [Source: Eliade Page]

But even though the Primary Clear Light be not recognized, the Clear Light of the second Bardo being recognized, Liberation will be attained. If not liberated even by that, then that called the third Bardo or the Chonyid Bardo dawneth. In this third stage of the Bardo, the karmic illusions come to shine. It is very important that this Great setting-face-to-face of the Chonyid Bardo be read: it hath much power and can do much good.

About this time [the deceased] can see that the share of food is being set aside, that the body is being stripped of its garments, that the place of the sleeping-rug is being swept; 7can hear all the weeping and wailing of his friends and relatives, and, although he can see them and can hear them calling upon him, they cannot hear him calling upon them, so he goeth away displeased.

At that time, sounds, lights, and rays-all three-are experienced. These awe, frighten, and terrify, and cause much fatigue. At this moment, this setting-face-to-face with the Bardo [during the experiencing] of Reality is to be applied. Call the deceased by name, and correctly and distinctly explain to him, as follows: “Nobly-born, listen with full attention, without being distracted: There are six states of Bardo, namely: the natural state of Bardo while in the womb; the Bardo of the dream-state; the Bardo of ecstatic equilibrium, while in deep meditation; the Bardo of the moment of death; the Bardo [during the experiencing] of Reality, the Bardo of the inverse process of samsaric existence. These are the six.

“Nobly-born, thou wilt experience three Bardos, the Bardo of the moment of death, the Bardo [during the experiencing] of Reality, and the Bardo while seeking rebirth. Of these three, up to yesterday, thou hadst experienced the Bardo of the moment of death. Although the Clear Light of Reality dawned upon thee, thou wert unable to hold on, and so thou hast to wander here. Now henceforth thou art going to experience the [other] two, the Chonyid Bardo and the Sidpa Bardo.8 Thou wilt pay undistracted attention to that with which I am about to set thee face to face, and hold on;

Nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. Thou art departing from this world, but thou art not the only one; [death] cometh to all. Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here. Thou wilt gain nothing more than wandering in this Samsara. 9 Be not attached [to this world]; be not weak. Remember the Precious Trinity.10

“Nobly-born, whatever fear and terror may come to thee in the Chonyid Bardo, forget not these words; and, bearing their meaning at heart, go forwards: in them lieth the vital secret of recognition:
Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo: When at this all-important moment [of opportunity] of achieving a great end.
May I not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

Repeat thou these [verses] dearly, and remembering their significance as thou repeatest them, go forwards, [O nobly-born]. Thereby, whatever visions of awe or terror appear, recognition is certain; and forget not this vital secret art lying therein. “nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse Of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it.

From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the natural sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. The body, which thou hast now is called the thought-body of propensities.11 Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come,-sounds, lights, or rays,-are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms. Recognize this to be the Bardo.

Nobly-born, if thou dost not now recognize thine own thoughtforms, whatever of meditation or of devotion thou mayest have performed while in the human world-if thou hast not met with this present teaching-the lights will daunt thee, the sounds will awe thee, and the rays will terrify thee. Shouldst thou not know this an important key to the teachings,-not being able to recognize the sounds, lights, and rays,-thou wilt have to wander in the Samsara.

Tibetan Funerals and Burials

Preparing the body for sky burial

Greatly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Religion, Tibetans have five ways of disposing of a dead bodies: 1) Sky Burial; 2) Water Burial; 3) Fire Burial (cremation); 4) Earth Burial; 5) and stupa burial (internment) or embalming. Corpses are still mummified using an ancient technique in which the corpse is but in a large box and packed in salt for about three months. Cliff burial and tree burial are also practiced occasionally. The funeral services must follow the rigid hierarchy of ranks, sharp demarcation, and also mainly depends on the divination from Lama.

The Mustangese have added another choice. A man who dies, leaving behind neither sons nor grandsons, can be enclosed in the walls of his house until a male heir is born. After the birth takes place the body of the deceased is removed to a hill where his body can be traded to the demons in return for a long life for the newborn boy. [Source: "Mustang, Nepal's Lost Kingdom" by Michael Peissel, October 1965]

After the death of a lama, the lama's body is cremated and placed in a mound at the crossing of four highways to symbolize the "universal reign of his teachings.” Very high lamas such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchan Lama are feted to grand funerals and their remains are placed in a stupa. At most funerals there are often few signs of outward grief for the attendants are often deeply religious and believe the soul has already departed. When expressing grief, some monks bang their heads against a wall until it is stained with blood.

Tibetan Funeral Practices

Tibetan burials are heavily influenced by natural environment: Distribution and evolvement of different funeral practices vary very much according to the natural conditions of the areas where they are performed. In the places where there is a lack of forests and wood, sky burials predominate while cremation is less practiced. In the dense wooded area in Southeastern Tibet, cremation prevails. In the places full of streams and rivers, water burial is performed as commonly as sky burials. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

Tibetan burials are deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Beliefs about death, the ceremonies, rituals and practices are in accordance with the Tibetan Buddhism and influenced by Buddhist concepts such as transmigration or rebirth. For smooth transmigration, there should be no trace left of earthliness (this is one reason why Tibetans don’t like their picture taken, as a photo could remain behind after they die). The body is no exception and should be thoroughly disposed of—either eaten by fish and vultures or incinerated.

When a person dies, the other family members fill the wooden bowl that he or she used for butter tea and place it before the corpse. Lamas are sent for to chant sutras for the dead seven times "seven days," totaling 49 days. Generally speaking, no matter what kind of funeral, in the past, monks had to be invited to perform religious rites to release the soul from the body before the corpse could be disposed of. A rich family will hold a sacrificial ceremony for the dead on the 30th day, when one lama is sent for to chant sutras. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

On the seventh day after the sky burial, the family as well as relatives and friends follow the priest in charge to the bank of the Lhasa River to hold a ceremony wishing the dead person's spirit safety and peace. In the ceremony, they lay the wooden bowl in front of the dead person before them and repeatedly fill it with tea to wish the person a good voyage. Finally, they pour the tea out of the wooden bowl, clean it, and give it to the priest. After that, the bowl belongs to the priest. This is a rule in the burial custom: The priest in charge of the celestial burial possesses the bowl every time after the dead body is buried. If the family wants to keep the dead person's wooden bowl as a memento, they must buy it from the priest. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]

On the first anniversary of the death, commemorative sacrificial activities are performed in the family home, and relatives, friends, and neighbors gather there, bringing hadas, tea, wine, meat, butter, and money. The host prepares food to thank the guests for their help during the past year.

According to the Chinese government:“Tibet is vast in territory, and there are diversified ways of burial, such as celestial burial [sky burial], stupa pagoda burial [stupa burial], cremation, water burial and burial in the ground. In the past, the selection of burial way is connected closely with everyone's economic and social status. The most common form of burial in Tibet is sky burial, called Jator, meaning "feeding the birds." The bodies are taken to the Jator site in the mountains and fed to vultures.

Stupa Burial

Stupa burial is the most noble and sacred funeral ritual in Tibet. It is reserved for famous lamas only. The body is painted with salt water and dried, and again smeared with precious ointments and perfumes, and then embalmed in a stupa (domed Buddhist shrine). Such funerals are given to honor only great lamas like the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. After cremation, ashes may also be placed within a stupa.

A Stupa is a Tibetan Buddhist religious monument and a sacred burial site. It is reserved for Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or the Living Buddha. After the nirvana of a high Lama, the embalmed corpse is dehydrated and wrapped with rare medicinal herbs and spices. Gold flakes and saffron are scattered on the body in some cases. Finally, the corpse is moved to the stupa and preserved for worshiping. Stupas can be elaborate or simple. It can be constructed of gold, silver, bronze, wood, or earth. The type of stupa selected is based on the ranking of the Lama. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org ]

According to the Chinese government: "Stupa burial is a noble burial for virtuous and talent persons after they die. After famous Living Buddhas pass away, in addition to large scale of chanting and magic exercising, the intestines and stomach should be laved with mercury, "Sela" perfume, camphor liquid and saffron liquid, and the surface of the corpse should be cleaned with camphor and saffron liquid. Then wrap the corpse with silk, dress it up with kasaya and put it into the spirit stupa to reserve the remains. The Lamas who are on guard light butter lamps to worship it day and night everyday. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~; China.org china.org |]

“Upon the death of a reincarnate living Buddha, a grand ceremony is held. Having been embalmed with spices and antiseptics, the body is wrapped in five-colored silk, and enshrined in a stupa. The bodies of ordinary living Buddhas and higher lamas are usually cremated after being rubbed with butter, and the ashes are kept in a designated place as the last dedication to the monastery. But cremation is forbidden in the harvest season. All these forms of burial indicate that the deceased have gone to the next world. ~

Often kept in monastery halls, stupas vary greatly depending on the rank of the occupant of each. There are gold stupas, silver stupas, wood stupas, mud stupas. The rank of different stupas is decided according to the status of Living Buddhas. Living Buddhas are put into silver, wood or mud stupas. Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas are given gold stupas, covered in sheets of solid gold, while the successor to Tsongkapa's religious throne in the Ganden Monastery is eligible only for a silver stupa.

Fire Burial (Cremation)

The "fire burial," or cremation is another kind of noble burial next to stupa burial, and it was restricted to living Buddhas, high lamas, feudal lords, people with high status and those of noble birth. Eminent monks are cremated in part because it is believed they do need to go through the procedures of rebirth like the commoners. Before cremation, people wrap up the body into the sitting position and tie it to the firewood pile. At the same time, the lama chant scripture for the spirit of the dead when people spill oil on the firewood and light the fire. After cremation the ashes are taken to high mountains to sprinkle in the wind or into rivers.

The "fire burial" is a luxury only the rich can afford (firewood and fuel are expensive and in short supply in Tibet). After the death of a lama, the lama's body is cremated and placed in a mound at the crossing of four highways to symbolize the "universal reign of his teachings.” At most funerals there are often few signs of outward grief for the attendants are often deeply religious and believe the soul has already departed. When expressing grief, some monks bang their heads against a wall until it is stained with blood.

Cremation is considered less noble than stupa burial. The corpse is seated on a stack of wood and straw poured with butter and burned. When cremating, pieces of specially chosen firewood are piled crisscrossly, the dead is put on the wood and "is seated" there with wood around supporting it. When the wood pieces are piled over the head, oil or wine is poured on the wood. Then the cremation starts and fire is lit up from the four directions of the lower part. The Lamas sit facing the dead and chant classics. At the same time, they narrate merits and virtues of the dead, and wishes the soul go up to heaven and be accepted by gods in heaven. When the fire is going out, people leave there in groups, and the ashes are collected and stored after three days. From that day on, Lamas are invited to chant and redeem the soul of the dead every seven days. After chanting for forty-nine days, the funeral is finally finished.” ~

After remains of Living Buddhas and eminent monks are cremated, their bone ashes are stored in relics stupas or are put in coffin after being mixed with mud and rubbed into mud balls as big as eggs. Then the coffin is buried in a selected lucky day. The burying place is usually fixed. The ashes of the sainted monks are put in a wood box or an earthen jar and thus and buried in the earth at home or on the top of a hill or in a piece of pure land. Or the the ashes are taken to the top of a tall mountain and scattered with the wind or into the river. But the sainted Living Buddha or Lama's ashes usually is put into a small gold or silver tower some together with classical books, joss, musical instrument (used in Buddhist or Taoist mass), and treasures. The tower for worship is usually called mourning tower or mourning bone tower.

Water Burials and Fish

Water burials are usually given to the lowest class of people such as beggars, widows, widowers, orphans, and the childless. The body is taken to the river, torn limb from limb, and thrown into the torrent. In some places, a simpler practice prevails where the whole body, wrapped in a white cloth, is thrown into the river. This method of burial is popular in the deep valleys of southern Tibet where there are no vultures. In the “water burial," the body is dumped in a lake or another body of water. Fish sometimes eat the bodies which partly explains why Tibetan don't eat fish.

There are two different views towards water burial. In areas where sky burial is the dominant practice, water burial is considered an inferior way to dispose of beggars and those with low social status. In places where vultures are not available for sky burial, water burial is widely adopted by commoners and the ritual follows a strict set of rules, sacredly and solemnly.

Eating fish is as abhorrent to Tibetans as eating pork is to Muslims and eating beef is to Hindus. Tibetan don't eat fish for several reasons. 1) fish sometimes eat the bodies of the dead as we said before; 2) water is considered sacred (fishing disturbs the water); and 3) fish don't have tongues, and hence they can't gossip. Tibetan detest gossip and they reward the fish for keeping their mouths shut by not eating them.

Earth Burials and the Burial of Infants in Tibet

The "earth burial" is practiced by Tibetans who have been assimilated into Han, or Chinese culture. Embalming and mummifying the body is a practice reserved for revered lamas. To the Tibetans, earth burial is the inferior form. Earth burial was prevalent in ancient times and was widely practiced by many ethnic clans. However, with the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism, sky burial became the dominant burial rite. Earth burial is now rarely practiced. Only those who suffer from infectious diseases or those killed by robbers or murderers are buried in this way. According to Tibetans, these bodies are not clean enough to be presented to the vultures. Earth burial indicates two meanings: One is to eradicate the spread of murrain. The other is to act as a way of penalizing the dead by putting it into the hell.

Ground burials, it is said, first appeared in about the 2nd century B.C.. Pude Gongyal held a funeral for his father, Drigum Tsanpo, the eighth king of the Tubo Dynasty (629-846) in which internment was practiced. However, as Buddhism penetrated the whole of Tibet, ground burial gradually became a lower form of burial for those who died of infectious diseases such as leprosy, anthrax and smallpox, and for robbers, murderers, and those who have been killed by a dagger. Religious law does not permit such people to receive a sky or water burial, but decrees that as punishment they must be buried under the earth to destroy their last vestige. Relatives regard such punishment as a great disgrace.

Another form of burial is that used when infants die, and consists of placing the body inside a clay pot, sealing the mouth and casting it into a river. Alternatively, the pot may be preserved inside a storehouse. Tree Burial is a burial for children. It is commonly practiced in Nyingchi, southeast of Tibet. To avoid being seen by other children, the corpse of the child is placed in a wooden case and hung on a tree in a remote forest.

Cliff burial is practiced in southern Tibet. The embalmed corpse is placed in a wooden box. The box is then placed in the cave off a cliff. The caves are usually 50-300 meters above ground. There are also such things as multi-person burial and stone coffin burial.

Sky Burial

"Sky burials” are the most common way of disposing of dead bodies in Tibet. A sky burial is simply the disposition of a corpse to be devoured by vultures. A monk or sky burial specialist eviscerates the human corpse, leaving the flesh as food for vultures and smashing the bones into a grainy dust. The process is supposed to liberate the spirit from the body for peaceful transport into the next life. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that sky burial represents the wishes of the soul to ascend to the afterlife. It is the most common way for ordinary Tibetans to be taken care after they die. Sky burials also have a practical side. They make sense in a land where fuel is scarce and the earth is often too hard to dig.

During a "sky burial”the body of the deceased is carried to a monastery on the backs of close friends and cut into little pieces by monks or members of a professional caste, and the pieces are fed to vultures who carry the spirit skyward to heaven. Family members of the deceased are often nearby but not actually at the site of the burial. When a body arrives the hair is cut off, the body is cut into pieces and the bones are pulverized and mixed with tsampa for the vultures to eat. Before stripping the flesh off the bones the monk who does the deed usually sharpens his knife on the sides or a rock, walks around a monument and says a prayer.

Sky burial are usually performed in places where wood is scarce and the climate is cold. Tibetans can’t bury their dead because the ground is often frozen, nor can they burn them because there is little wood. The bones are collected and taken home and scattered. For important lamas the bones are mixed with mud and made into a chorten.

Image Sources: O Rotem, Global Hopkins

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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