At the break of dawn on a cold, crisp October day, we went to a Tibetan sky burial. The ceremony site is a short taxi ride from Litang, a town that sits at just over 13,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan plateau. Litang is situated about 200km outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in western Sichuan, a province of China. Although Litang is no longer technically within Tibet, the town itself is ethnically Tibetan and maintains Tibetan culture – including the sky burial.
As we arrived, a small group of men were standing near a fire, drinking tea and chatting. By their long sleeves and brimmed hats, they were likely local nomadic yak herders. Jacque was the only woman in evidence. Beyond the men, we could see some birds that looked like ravens on the opposite side of the valley. When they approached closer, we saw they were huge vultures with six-foot wingspans, awaiting the day’s ceremony. Somehow, they knew to expect the burial. In stark contrast to most Tibetan religious locations, the site of the ceremony was quite drab: no prayer wheels, no monks in traditional garb, no stupa with a gold spire. There were simply some old, battered prayer flags and a small concrete building squatting in the valley. The ceremony site itself had no adornment whatsoever; it was just a grassy hill.
The sky burial was a singular experience. Apparently, it is normal for Tibetans to be buried in this way. I suppose I should say “buried”: the sky burial doesn’t involve digging into the ground at all. The body is laid upon the ground and cut open in various places by a special monk. Then, a giant flock of huge vultures descends on the body. The vultures themselves are sacred, and they feed on the flesh until little but the skeleton remains of the man. Afterward, the bones are crushed and mixed with flour, so even the bones are eaten. The sacred vultures then carry the remains of the man into the sky. Hence, sky burial. (For a more detailed and objective description, see The Wanderer.)
The Chinese consider the practice barbaric and even banned it for nearly 20 years in the 70’s and 80’s. I can understand the impulse to ban it – all the cutting and crushing of human remains is shocking to witness. It’s not a clean, neat process, as we prefer our funerals in the West; after death, our bodies are prepared out of sight before a funeral or cremated in private. But disposing of a human being’s remains in the manner of their choosing is respectful, even if that practice seems barbaric to our eyes. Besides, the symbolism of being carried into the sky is somewhat more appealing than rotting underneath the ground. The lack of any tombstone, marker, or even gravesite reflects the transience of life. There is also the practical aspect: most of the Tibetan plateau is permafrost, which makes burial nearly impossible, and wood is almost nonexistent for cremations as most of the plateau is above tree line. That said, the spectacle is a bit grim; we watched from almost 100 yards away. Our distance was only partially out of respect for the deceased.
I don’t know how long this practice will stay alive – if the Chinese government has its way, many aspects of Tibetan culture will be removed, changed, or marginalized. (The military and police presence in Litang was obvious at all times.) Notwithstanding the action of the government, these kinds of unique tribal practices will likely fade as the world gets smaller. A practice like the sky burial can never work in an urban setting. Any disposal of remains that could spread disease – this surely could, as the monk’s work is quite hands-on – will become an issue as population density rises, to say nothing of the vultures’ inability to live in urban environments.
For now, though, it remains the way that Tibetans choose to pass on from this life. Despite our discomfort with the scene, we witnessed a piece of Tibet just as important as the monasteries and prayer wheels, as much a fact of life as the furry yaks and their nomadic herders’ tents. This short glimpse into the end of a Tibetan’s life shed some light on their beliefs: the observers were casual, helping to corral the vultures when needed and departing soon afterward; there were no prayers or ceremonies; no tears were shed and no widow wailed; the monks, even, seemed to be going about any normal job, without the drab earnestness of clergy at our funerals. The sky burial was nothing more than one phase of their life. Though it felt to us as though the passing of the man was hardly noted, we knew that his wishes were respected. In the end, that is the best that anyone can hope for.