“WHAT is Sky Burial The Tibetan WAY?”

Sky Burial

Sky burial or ritual dissection was once a common funerary practice in Tibet wherein a human corpse is cut in specific locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it especially to birds of prey.

In Tibet, the practice is known as jhator, which literally means, “giving alms to the birds.” Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his or her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. Generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues in Buddhism.

The majority of Tibetans adhere to Buddhism, which teaches rebirth. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it, or nature may let it decompose. So the function of the sky burial is simply the disposal of the remains. In much of Tibet,  the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and with fuel and timber scarce, a sky burial is often more practical than cremation.

“Sky burial and open cremation may initially appear grotesque for Westerners, especially if they have not reflected on their own burial practice of embalming . For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life.”

The full jhator procedure – as shown in the slides is elaborate and expensive. Those who cannot afford it simply place their deceased on a high rock where the body decomposes or is eaten by birds and animals.

Normally, after the death of a Tibetan, the deceased will be cleaned, wrapped in white cloth and left untouched for three or five days. During these several days monks will chant around the corpse. Family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for ascension of souls into heaven.

Before dawn on the sky burial day, the corpse is sent to the burial site among mountains which is always far from the residential area. Lamas lead a ritual procession to the charnel ground, chanting to guide the soul. There are few charnel grounds in Tibet. They are usually located near monasteries.

After the chanting, the body breakers prepare the body for consumption by the vultures.  The jhator usually takes place at dawn. The body is unwrapped and the first cut is made on the back. Hatchets and cleavers are used to quickly cut the body up, in a definite and precise way. Flesh is cut into chunks of meat.

As the body breakers begin, juniper incense is burned to summon the vultures for their tasks, to eat breakfast and to be Dakinis. After the body has been totally separated, the birds land and hop about, grabbing for food. Relatives may remain nearby during the jhator, possibly in a place where they cannot see it directly.

In most accounts, vultures are given the whole body. It is considered a bad omen if the vultures will not eat, or if even a small portion of the body is left after the birds fly away.  Alternatively, when only the bones remained, they are broken up with mallets, ground with tsampa – barley flour with tea and yak butter or milk, and given to crows and hawks that have waited until the vultures had departed. This is to ensure the entire body of the deceased eaten and to assure ascent of the soul.

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