Chapter 7

The Sky Burial

On a small table-top of black rock, north of Shigatse in Tibet, the author had the strange and utterly alien experience of being one of the few westerners in the world to watch a sky funeral'. It was a few years ago now, and that very service is no longer, or very rarely practised due to the reasoning of the present government in power, who consider the ceremony as historically bizarre, thoroughly distasteful and also a potentially serious health hazard to tourists. A common procedure of disposing of the dead in Tibet was to dismember the corpse and feed the severed flesh to vultures who eagerly awaited their tasty morsels with a noisy reception of squawking and the flapping of wings. In early times, it was not possible to dispose of the dead by means other than this idiosyncratic method due to the harsh weather conditions that rendered the ground hard and stony, and almost impossible to dig; earth burial was not an option. Another option to be ruled out was that of cremation. Unlike India and Nepal where the land was fertile and trees grew in thick lustrous forests, most of Tibet was above the tree-line, so making wood a scarce resource. Somewhere in the antiquity of Tibet's history the 'Sky Burial' was conceived, a very practical way to solve a very distressing problematic situation. Chop up the bodies, feed the remains to the vultures, incorporate the ritual into the religion and hence an early contribution to the process of recycling was born. After all, didn't the vultures have a right to the wheel of life, didn't they also have the right to be reborn in a higher existence? Of course they did.

Briefly, at the funeral service that the author witnessed away from the prying eyes of the authorities, a body was produced from a linen sack, and unceremoniously dumped onto the stained stony floor. The body of a young man was naked and rigid. The chief funeral operative, dressed in a grey butcher-type apron flipped the body onto its front and began with deft strokes to separate the limbs from the corpse. These strokes were hard and brutal, and the fierce machete-type knife he wielded was bloody and rusted. The limbs were casually chucked to an assistant, a boy of about fourteen who, with what seemed to be a broken half of a pair of gardening shears, sliced off strips of flesh and threw them in the air to the circling vultures, who caught them expertly in their crooked blood-stained talons and flew to a perch nearby to greedily devour their meal.

The boy assistant had a favourite vulture who he called frequently by cooing a strange call that sounded almost inhuman, as if he had the gift to speak their airborne language. While all this was going on, a few feet away from the senior butcher, were two old men who were pulverising the bones that were thrown to them by the young boy, into a bloody splintered mass. After the corpse was beheaded and the stomach disembowelled, the skull smashed into fragments with a huge stone, the heart ripped out and cut up into small pieces, the author who by now was thoroughly unwell, but still spellbound by the horrific nature of this ritual was forced to leave as nausea beckoned.

Throughout the above ritual, the author heard no chanting of prayers, nor the familiar ring of accompanying symbols, and aside from the voices of the butchers and the birds, the whole of nature seemed to hold its breath. The author retreated to a quiet place and thought of his loved ones.

It is interesting to note that as human bone was easily shaped and carved so it was, that human bone became extensively used in the manufacture of many ritual items, such as: thigh bone trumpets, rosaries (malas (Sk)) made from the discs cut out of the skulls of holy people and saints, skull drums and skull bowls used in necromantic services and finally, aprons, sometimes superbly carved and fashioned into garments that were worn by mystics and shamans during religious rites. (See Photograph 11.)

A verse from one of the holiest Bardo scriptures reads as follows:

"O that now, when the Bardo of life

is dawning upon me,

after giving up indolence, since there is

no time to waste in life,

May I undistractedly enter the path

of listening, reflecting

and meditating,

So that, once having attained human embodiment,

no time may be squandered through useless distractions."

(Tibetan Book of the Dead, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, 1960, p.85)