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A vulture at a sky burial in 2013 for a Tibetan monk (photograph by Chensiyuan, via Wikimedia)
Sky burial isn’t a burial at all, of anything. It’s the act of leaving a corpse exposed to the elements, often in an elevated location, and only a few different cultures do it, for different reasons and in different ways.
The concept's been on my radar for a few years thanks to happening upon the Vajrāyana Buddhist bya gtor practice primarily found in Tibet —and less so in China and Mongolia. It can be shocking to see — ex-human beings being dispassionately dragged up a mountain, chopped up, and thrown to a venue of waiting vultures.
But then I started to think (and read) about it. One of the main tenets of Buddhism is compassion, which includes kindness toward all animals. So the idea at work here is that, if your body is just a shell for your spirit, which will be reincarnated anyway, and if your spirit has left it and it could nourish another creature, then it should. Bya gtor literally translates to "alms for the birds" in Tibetan. It’s considered important to not waste the opportunity to help another living thing.
Sky burial site in Yerpa Valley, Tibet (photograph by John Hill)
A depiction of sky burials in Litang monastery (photograph by Antoine Taveneaux)
Once the body is kept in a sitting position for two days and a lama recites the necessary prayers, the corpse’s spine is broken so that it can be folded and carried to the sky burial site, which is usually quite a schlep. Family members may accompany the dead on this journey, beating double-sided drums and chanting. Once arrived at the site, the rogyapa, or body breakers, first burn juniper to attract vultures. The corpse is placed face-down on the stones, its hair removed, and the ropyagas begin to chop up the limbs with axes or sledgehammers, sometimes flaying meat from bones and throwing it to the waiting vultures.
When only bones remain, they’re pounded into a pulp, mixed with barley flour, tea, and yak butter, and given to the crows and hawks, after the vultures have had their fill of meat. It’s a bad omen if the vultures won’t eat, which can be a problem if the body has been treated with disinfectant or medicine, as it might be at a hospital. Typically, the yak that is used to transport the body is supposed to be set free after the ritual, which is yet another reason that sky burial can be a costly process. Most of the times that it’s practiced in Tibet, therefore, it’s a commuted version of leaving the corpse on the stones to be ritualized by the birds instead.
Sky burial is currently the preferred practice in Tibet when a loved one dies. Religion aside, a few other factors come into play here: generally, the soil in Tibet is a layer of permafrost only a few centimeters deep, and it covers solid rock, making it hard to dig. Wood is also difficult to come by, as most of Tibet is above the tree line, so cremation is a difficult process.