Tibetan Sky Burial

September 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm (Death and Dying) (, )

There is more than one way to deal with what’s left when someone passes on. In the United States, we’re mostly relegated to either internment into the earth, or cremation. However, in other cultures, there are a number of other ways one can choose to have their body become once again part of the cycles of the earth.

I have been attracted to the idea of a Sky Burial because I am so much an air-elemental kind of person. It’s one of the elements that gets the least amount of attention when it comes to death rites: we can conceive of the idea of becoming humus, or ash, or slowly liquifying at the bottom of the sea; but there isn’t really a way to take to the air (other than ash scattering, which I’ve seen go wrong as many times as I’ve seen gone right – no one wants a sweater full of Grandma due to the winds being precocious).

The concept of a Sky Burial is that a body is taken to a place and prepared to be devoured by vultures or other scavenger birds. Up until today, it was only something I had read about. And then someone provided me with a series of images of an actual Sky Burial.

Before I give you the link, you should be aware that these images are GRAPHIC. If the show “Bones” makes you queasy with their special-effect-corpses, I highly suggest you skip this. However, there is something absolutely beautiful about the juxtaposition of birds in flight with the remnants of a loved one.

With that all being said, I give you the link. Once again, there are very graphic and potentially disturbing images of how the body is prepared so the birds have an easier time devouring the body, so consider yourself duly warned.

Tibetan Sky Burial Images



  1. Joh said,

    That was actually very beautiful.

    I knew that Zoroastrians in Iran had a tradition of sky burial, but I didn’t know that it was common in Tibet, also.

    It does raise a lot of questions, though. Like how this would work out in more heavily populated areas than rural Tibet, like, the suburbs of Chicago or Los Angeles? Are there enough vultures and free-ranging scavengers around these days to do the job quickly and cleanly? Is it illegal because there is a genuine threat to public health, or is it just because most Western cultures find it disturbing? If cremation was almost unheard of in the US and Great Britain a few decades ago because it was seen as barbaric and unchristian… “becoming vulture chow” would probably have a similar if not worse public relations problem.

    My father, when he retired, built some bird feeders for his porch with the hopes of taking up birdwatching and learning about local songbird. Instead the feeders were overtaken by crows and ravens that scared off the smaller birds. So my dad took to watching to crows and ravens and reading everything he could about corvids. When he catches a salmon or a rabbit, he gives part to the crows and ravens. A couple of the younger birds are half-tame and will follow him around the neighborhood.

    He tells people now that when he dies, he wants to be given a sky burial, so he can feed the birds one last time. He even put it in his will. His friends think he is joking – and to be honest, it will probably never happen due to the legal restrictions and the interventions of family and church.

    Somehow, though, it seems like a peaceful and clean ending.

    No matter what, even if it is just the bacteria resident to our own bodies, /something/ is going to eat us after death. It is a reassuring thought that it could be something beautiful and soaring and feathered. 😀

  2. JJ said,

    I totally agree with Joh. It was very beautiful!!! That loved one was given such a gift!!!


  3. Asrik said,

    One of the more beautiful things I have ever seen are the Towers of Silence near Yazd, Iran (images here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=184624504974807&l=69c8820cc0 here: http://wwwnasellarsacebook.com/photo.php?fbid=184624318308159&l=19c6bd5021 and here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=184624398308151&l=1626f7e329). They are part of the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burials. If my memory serves Zoroastrians hold that after someone dies corpse demons rush into their body and curse things that come contact with it. As a mostly desert culture water-burials would be incredibly wasteful, burials in earth would curse the land, and they also hold fire as the most sacred element (they keep eternal fires) so having something curse their fires was a no-no, leaving air.

    The family would bring the body to the bottom of the hill. Then a special class of pall-bearers known as nasellars (loosely translated as “caretakers of the unclean”) who take the body up the mountain and into the Towers. They’re circular towers with a flat space at the top. They were closed up so that only birds could eat the bodies. The bodies were left up there until the bones were picked clean and then returned to the families.

    The practice has died out (in Iran at least) for a bunch of reasons reasons (mostly having to due with disrespect from the majority Muslim population).

  4. beanalreasa said,

    I didn’t even know that there was such a thing…or rather, I have been misunderstanding the meaning of ‘sky burial.’ Gosh, I feel naive.

    But it is beautiful. As Joh brought up in the comment above, I think that it would be a fitting way to ‘bury’ someone who, like myself, is so attracted to crows and ravens. But as Joh writes, laws governing the ‘proper disposal/internment of a dead body’ are probably difficult to work around. Aside of the ‘danger of attracting scavengers’ (such as in Florida) become issues, too… Ie., You can be heavily fined by your neighborhood HOA or even the town or county, for putting your trash out too early or leaving it out too late.

  5. beanalreasa said,

    Urgh… For cut off too soon…

    This is not to say that a dead body is trash…just saying that in a place like Florida, the state/county/HOAs take the ‘danger of attracting scavengers’ quite seriously.

    So, I would imagine that it would be difficult to find a ‘sky burial’ option here :-/

  6. Stacia said,

    That was beautiful and fast. The vultures assembled quite quickly, but if the ceremony was carried out in a place where people usually perform sky burial they probably recognize the signs. I don’t know if we have large enough vulture populations (other than on courthouses) for a body to be scavenged that quickly in the US. I think that if you wanted to do a sky burial in the US you’d have to do it stealthily, in the middle of a wilderness, which is a lot more complicated than wrapping the corpse in a tarp and putting it on the back of your motorcycle to take a little ways out of town. I’m also unclear on the extent to which bodies are tracked after death; it would be a complicating factor if the family has to account for the body after they take possession of it.

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