In Tibet, there are different ways to bury bodies after death, including water burial, cremation, burial in the ground, and sky burial, which is the most common practice. Sky burial sites are found all over Tibet.
What is Sky Burial?
Sky burial (དུར་ཁྲོད།) is also called “bird burial,” because the body is offered to vultures. The most famous places for sky burials are the monasteries of Drigung and Ganden in central Tibet and Larung Gar Buddhist Institute near Sertar in Kham.
When a Tibetan person dies, the family lights a butter lamp beside the body and asks monks to come to the home to pray and give blessings for 3-5 days. During this time the body is left untouched. The funeral day will be chosen according to the monks’ divinatory symbols.
Family members and relatives do not join the funeral, instead they stay at home to pray. Villagers take the body to the sky burial site by horse or car. The master of the sky burial ceremony performs all the rituals and burns incense and tsampa to call the vultures to come. The bodies are cut into small piece by the master to feed the vultures. It’s a good sign and good luck if the vultures consume the entire body. There is a saying from Tibetan folk custom that even vultures will not want to consume a human’s body if he or she has done many evil deeds during their lifetime. 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.
The Values of Sky Burial
Giving offerings is a common practice in Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists, however, 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 our body to vultures or birds is the last great and honorable thing for us to do in this lifetime. With sky burial, we don’t need to disturb the land to bury the body, so there is a wonderful value of environmental protection behind the sky burial.
Sky burial is a private matter, so I 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.