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Unique Burial & Cremation Customs Series – Sky Burials in Tibet

In Tibet, many people adhere to the Buddhist beliefs of resurrection. According to these beliefs, there is no need to preserve the body after death, because it is considered at that point, an empty vessel. While cremation is very common among Buddhist, a sky burial is the typical method of disposing of the corpse of commoners in Tibet. A sky burial is a ceremony where the corpse is offered to the elements and animals, specifically birds of prey.

In preparation for the sky burial, the deceased is left untouched for three days, while monks chant around the corpse and other ceremonial activities take place. The body is then cleaned, placed in the fetal position and wrapped in a white cloth.

At the burial grounds, monks begin the sky burial by chanting around the body and burning juniper incense to summon the birds. The corpse is then unwrapped and either a monk or rogyapas (“body-breakers”) work to disassemble the body. With vultures circling above, the corpse is cut in specific locations. There is a definite and precise manner in which this must be done. During this process, rogyapas talk and laugh as they would during any other type of physical labor. In Buddhist teachings, it is said that laughing and talking makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move onto the next life (according to Buddhist teaching).  Upon completion, the rogyapas all fall back at the same time allowing for the birds to rush in and cover the body. Following this process, the bones are then reduced to splinters by the rogyapas and mixed with barley flower. Other birds of prey then complete the process.

The ceremonial process of Tibet is very sacred and is not open to visitors or foreigners. Tibetans strongly object to the viewing of a sky burial from outsiders for reasons of curiosity. This sacred ceremony is the most common way to be sent into the next life in the Tibet culture.

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This is the first in a series of blog posts on unique burial and cremation customs throughout the world. In the coming few weeks, I will be blogging about the traditions of many countries and detailing their burial and cremation customs. Although at first glance, some of the traditions sound a bit harsh and very different from the customs of the U.S., they typically follow the belief system of that culture and are done with good reason and intentions.

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