Sky Burial

Sky Burial Site

WHAT IS  SKY BURIAL?

When a Tibetan person dies, the family lights butter lamps beside the deceased while monks pray and give blessings over the body for three to five days. During this time the body is not touched. The funeral day will be chosen according to the monks’ divination. Family members and relatives do not come to the funeral. Instead, they stay home and pray. Villagers take the body to the sky burial site by horse or car. The master of the sky burial ceremony performs rituals over the body. He then burns incense and tsampa to call the vultures to come. In no time, the birds begin to circle over the site. The master then proceeds to chop the body into small pieces. He makes way for the feasting to happen. If the vultures consume the entire body, it's a good sign. Tibetan folk custom believes that even vultures will not want to consume a human’s body if he or she has done many evil deeds during their lifetime.

Sky Burial at Sertar

Due to the fact that vultures consume the remains of the human body, sky burial (དུར་ཁྲོད།) is also called “bird burial.” In Tibet, there are other ways to bury bodies after death, including water burial, cremation, and burial in the ground. Sky burial is the most common, though people who have died from leprosy or infectious diseases are not given sky burials for fear of harming the vultures. Instead, they are buried in the ground or cremated. Sky burial sites are found all over Tibet.

Vultures at the sky burial

THE VALUES OF SKY BURIAL

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the corpse is nothing but a discarded shell. While the body may lie still upon the deathbed, the spirit of the deceased has already moved on, through death and toward a new incarnation. So for Buddhists in Tibet or Mongolia, offering their bodies to vultures or birds is the last great and honorable thing to do in this lifetime. With sky burial, there is no need to disturb the land to bury the body. This expresses a value for environmental protection in the sky burial tradition.

Sky burial is a private matter, so we don’t encourage or recommend people to go to sky burial sites to take pictures unless you are invited by the friends or the family. Please remember that the greatest of respect needs to be shown during a sky burial. The most famous places for sky burials are the monasteries of Drigung and Ganden in central Tibet and Larung Gar Buddhist Institute near Sertarin Kham.