Tibet's 'sky burial' lives on to link death and nature

July 12, 1999

LIRONG, China -- The vultures gathered on the mountainside to watch. On the grassy slope below, a Tibetan monk placed the naked corpse of an old woman in a sacred clearing and stepped away to sharpen his knife on the side of a rock. Mumbling a prayer, he marched once around an old Buddhist monument, and then he cut her body into pieces.

Performing a Tibetan tradition that has haunted these grounds for centuries, the monk stripped flesh from bone. He followed with a sledgehammer, crushing each bone into fragments so small that they, too, could be devoured by vultures.

In an hour, after the monk finished and the enormous birds swarmed the area and scrabbled over the last chunks of human flesh, no trace of the woman's body remained. Except the memory of it, fading slowly in the eyes of half a dozen witnesses.

The vultures, about 50 of them, ambled slowly up the hill and took to the air with evident difficulty, overfed as they are from this daily ritual. Tibetans call it "sky burial."

Deep in the mountains of the Tibetan plateau, even in this part that spills into half of Sichuan Province, Tibetans still carry out ancient rituals like sky burial every day. It bespeaks a timeless adherence to old ways of life and death, unaffected by the changes that are so rapidly affecting the rest of China.

Sky burial may seem barbaric to outsiders. Yet in a desperately poor region dominated by nearly impassable mountains, where many Tibetans live without electricity, roads or telephones, the essentials of life seem to hew closely to the brutal rhythms of nature.

For Tibetans, many of whom display religious fervor despite decades of Chinese rule that has at times tried to undermine it, sky burial is a widely accepted and ecologically sound way to dispose of the dead.

"When the body dies, the spirit leaves, so there is no need to keep the body," said Garloji, a monk who came to observe the ceremony. Like many Tibetans, he uses one name. "The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing part of life's cycle."

Sky burial is one of three principal ways that Tibetans traditionally return their dead to the earth. The two others are cremation and "water burial."

Wood was so scarce in the mountainous desert of Tibet that burning a corpse was reserved for people of stature. Poor people who could not afford cremation or sky burial typically dropped a body into a river.

Today all three methods are still used. In towns with access to a river, water burial is now often performed by cutting a corpse into small pieces that will disappear into the mouths of fish.

Chinese officials, who asserted their control over this area of western Sichuan as the army moved toward Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in 1950, still seem to regard sky burial as a bizarre ritual of a primitive people. Although the officials banned sky burials together with almost all religious practices in the 1960s and 1970s, Tibetans regained limited rights to practice religious ceremonies in the 1980s.

"We encourage cremation, but we allow sky burial," Nima Tsering, vice governor of Tibet, said last year.

In Lhasa sky burial ceremonies are performed at dawn and are closed to outsiders. But an area like this one, deep in the vast border region of the Tibetan plateau and more than 500 miles by dirt road from the nearest city, is so remote and inaccessible that no one attending the ceremony here was aware of regulations.

On this day, the body of the 67-year-old woman was stiff after three days of transport by tractor from her home more than 200 miles away when it arrived at a nearby Buddhist temple, where a short ceremony was performed at noon.

The dead woman's husband and her son, who accompanied the body this far, retreated to sit on a hilltop about half a mile away. It is customary for relatives to remain close by during the ceremony, Garloji explained, but not so close that they can actually witness it.

Lobsang, the monk who performed this sky burial, tied a burlap bag around his waist like an apron. Working methodically, with the dispatch of a professional, he stripped the flesh from each of the woman's limbs. Cutting open her abdomen with one motion, he stepped back momentarily to let the strong odor recede.

He took one bone after another, placing them on a flat stone. Raising a small sledgehammer over his head, he smashed them into small pieces, separating the yield into two small piles, flesh and bone. Next to last came her skull, which burst into pieces with a sharp crack when the hammer came down.

Garloji said one sect of fellow worshipers at his monastery liked to preserve the top parts of the skulls and use them as enlarged cups for tea.

When the Chinese try to justify their rule in Tibet by depicting the slavery and harsh theocracy that existed before 1950, skull teacups are often one piece of evidence they offer of the nature of pre-Communist Tibet.

When Lobsang finished, he looked up at the vultures on the hillside. He signaled them, with a flick of the wrist, that it was feeding time. The birds descended in a mass of flapping wings and pecking beaks, devouring the remains in minutes.

Lobsang took off his apron and walked away. Wearing a scowl, he seemed surprised that anyone would ask him to pause a moment and talk about his work. "I come every day, and it's about the same," he said. "Some bodies smell worse. Some are bigger, heavier. No big deal."

WTN World Tibet Network News JULY 99