Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at ancient Tibetan funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Ghanaian funeral traditions and Brazilian funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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The ancient Tibetans had a unique funeral practice known as a sky burial or jhator where the deceased’s body was left open to the elements of nature to decompose on a mountaintop. The body was left on a charnel ground, or above-ground burial site, and left for scavenging animals like birds to eat, as jhator means “giving alms to the birds.”
The meaning behind the sky burial was to teach everyone about the impermanence of life. Leaving the body on the mountaintop was part of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of respecting the body. They considered it a generous act because the deceased was providing food for living animals to survive.
Sky Funeral Preparation
The sky burial would take place at specific locations, usually at dawn, with one of the most popular places being the Drigung Monastery in Tibet. Before beginning the process of disassembling the body, everyone would participate in a ritual mantra chant. The family would get rid of the deceased’s valuables so they wouldn’t try to stay on Earth and would prepare for the Buddhist cycle of rebirth.
The body would be prepared by a monk or rogyapas, body-breaker, by cutting up the body and pounding the bones and flesh into a pulp mixture for the birds. Sometimes the body would be left whole, and then the remaining bones would be ground up and mixed with barley, flour, tea, and yak butter or milk for scavengers.
Other Tibetan Funeral Rituals
Although the sky burial was the most well-known Tibetan funeral custom, it wasn’t the only Tibetan burial ritual practiced, as some burial customs were more popular in certain regions of Tibet.
Stupa burials involved placing the body by the Stupa, a Tibetan Buddhist religious moment and burial site. The body was dehydrated, wrapped in herbs and spices, and sometimes gold flakes were scattered.
Fire burials were cremation, as the body was burned on a pile of wood and straw and the ashes were scattered on a mountaintop or in a river.
Water burials were when the body was wrapped in white cloth and placed into the river. This was considered a lesser burial method compared to sky burials, and was primarily used for those with a low social status. Earth burials also were seen as a lesser burial method than sky burials.
Tree and cliff burials were not as common as the other customs, but tree burials were reserved for children. The child’s body was placed inside a wooden case and hung on a tree in the forest so other children wouldn’t see it. Cliff burials were when the body was placed in a wooden case inside a cave on a cliff.