Tibetan Funeral Customs

by | Nov 8, 2018 |

Tibetan Funeral Customs: Tibetan Buddhists believe life is not over at death, but merely entering a rebirth. Monks emphasize this cyclical nature of existence to dispel the fear of death in Tibetan society and help people prepare for a new beginning. When death occurs, Tibetan follow three main forms of burial: cremation, water burial, and sky burial. “Sky burial” is technically not a burial, but a process in which the remains of the deceased are fed to vultures. The custom is known as Jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds,” while “sky burial” is a phrase created by Europeans.

The Sky-burial or Celestial Burials

The sky-burial or vulture disposal is a common practice when people die in most Tibetan areas. It has more than a millennium of history. Before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet the corpse of important people were just put in tombs or buried. The reason why Tibetans later chose vulture-disposal is that they were inspired by a story about one of Buddha’s previous life when he gave away his own flesh to a hungry tiger. This teaches people about the importance of generosity.

For Tibetans, the sky burial serves both practical and spiritual functions, some of the central values in Tibetan culture revolve around being humble, generous, and honoring of nature.

Sky burials allow the physical bodies of Tibetans to be returned to the earth in a way that generously provides a meal for the vultures and very minimally disturbs the earth. Because of their belief in reincarnation, death is seen as more of a transition as opposed to an ending. They believe the soul moves on from the body at the very instant of death, leaving very little room for attachment to the physical body after death.

In fact, in order for the soul of the person to have an easy transition into their next life, the Tibetans believe there should be no trace left of the physical body after death, providing another advantage of this practice.

History says that at the beginning of the 12th century, an Indian master called Padhamba Sangye started the Shichey or the pacification school in Tibet and his spiritual wife and student, Machik Labdron practiced and taught the teaching of “Changing corpse into food”. This practice is also called “Chod” and its main purpose is to cut attachment to our physical body.

This also strongly influenced Tibetan people’s mind to give away their dead body to hungry vultures. They are special people namely burial master “Tobden” who take the corpse to the vulture disposal ground and cut them into pieces so that the vultures can eat them conveniently.

Above summary is just a nutshell overview of the Tibetan sky burials and the reasons for why they do so. However, many Non-Tibetans might be extremely curious about the following associated topics.

  • I. How easily is the Burial Master able to cut up another person?

Though it sounds like a gruesome job, Buddhism teaches us impermanence of life and the transmigration of spirits, there is no need to preserve the body as it is now an empty vessel. Therefore, the burial master perceives that his service is purely an act of generosity and compassion for all beings, which is an important part of virtues in Buddhism practice.

  • II. Does everyone get to see the body pieces?

Not everyone is allowed to see the scene, only the helpers of funeral service that are arranged from the deceased family. Tourists are prohibited to go and see around the sky burial emphasized by the local government low.

  • III. If Tibetans believe that no part of the body should be left, what do they do with the bones?

No trace of the physical body will be left at the sky burial, everything will be processed with clean and tidy by the burial master and the helpers. The bone is fragmented or smashed into very tiny pieces and mixed with Tsampa (Roasted Barley Flour) and feast to the vultures.

  • IV. Does the family or loved ones allow to watch the whole process?

Family members and close relatives are not allowed to participate and watch the funeral process at the sky burial.

Tibetan Sky-burial. Tibetan Funeral Customs

Other Tibetan Funeral Customs

Cremation:

For cremation, the body of the deceased is burned atop a bed of wood and straw. In northern regions of Tibet where wood is scarce, this method is reserved for monks and aristocrats. In the heavily forested southeast, however, commoners may be cremated as well. The big difference comes down to the fate of the ashes. While a commoner’s ashes are typically scattered on a mountaintop or into a river, noble ashes are preserved in clay holy objects known as Tsa-Tsas.

Water burial:

Just as Tibet is a land of mountainous peaks, it is also a land of surging rivers. As such, the disposal of corpses for consumption by fishes follows the same logic as Jhator. Sometimes the body is dismembered first; other times it goes in whole. In regions where sky burial is the preferred funeral custom, water burial is considered a low form of burial for beggars. In southern Tibet, however, vultures are less common, and here water burials are more frequent than they are in the north.

Stupa burial:

Found throughout Asia, stupas are sacred Buddhist monuments built to contain holy relics or the remains of, particularly holy individuals. Tibetan stupas are reserved for the likes of past Dalai Lamas and incarnations of the Buddha. The deceased is lavishly embalmed with rare spices and minerals before placement.

Cliff burial:

Found only in southern Tibet, this funeral rite sees the corpse embalmed with ghee (a form of clarified butter), salt and perfume and placed in a wooden casket. Next, the monks attending the body transport the box to a natural or man-made cliffside cavern and place it beside other remains. The elevation of the cave entrance varies greatly depending on the social status of the departed.

Tree burial:

In remote frosts of southeastern Nyingchi Prefecture, you’ll find trees filled with small wooden boxes and baskets. Some of these parcels rest on its limbs while others hang around its trunk. Each contains the remains of a deceased child or an aborted fetus.

Earth Burial (Inhumation):

Earth burial only used to practice in ancient times and was widely practiced by many ethnical clans. Following the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet, sky burial became the most common practice of funeral custom. Only those who suffer from infectious diseases will be earth buried or cremated mainly because who might have undergone chemical substance to treat an ailment, which is not clean enough to be fed to the vultures.

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