Sky burial is simply the disposal of a corpse to be devoured by vultures. In Tibetan Buddhism, sky burial is believed to represent their wishes to go to heaven. It is the most widespread way for commoners to deal with the dead in Tibet.
If a Tibetan dies, the corpse is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and placed in a corner of the house for three or five days, during which monks or lamas are asked to read the scripture aloud so that the souls can be released from purgatory.
Family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for the ascension of souls into heaven.
Later, the Family members will choose a lucky day and ask the body carrier to carry the body away to the celestial burial platform.
On the day before the burial, the family members take off the clothes of the dead and fix the corpse in a fetal position.
Specifically, the body is bent into a sitting position, with the head against the knees.
At dawn on the lucky day, the corpse is sent to the burial site among mountains which is always far from the residential area.
Then “Su” smoke is burned to attract condors, Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul, and a professional celestial burial master deals with the body. The practice of sky burial is closely related to philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetans believe that if the vultures come and eat the body, it means that the dead has no sin and that his or her soul has gone peacefully to Paradise.
The condors on the mountains around the celestial burial platform are “holy birds” and only eat the human body without attacking any small animals nearby.
Any remains left by the holy birds must be collected up and burnt while the Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the dead because the remains would tie the spirits to this life.
Strangers are not allowed to attend the ceremony for Tibetans believe it will bring negative efforts to the ascending of the souls.
So visitors should respect this custom and keep away from such occasions. The family members are also not allowed to be present at the burial site.
In addition to fierce and menacing vultures, the most intriguing part of the sky funeral ritual is the body carrier (also known as rogyapas or body breaker). They drag the dead body to the mountaintop and dissect it with blade. The whole process, as opposed to most people’s expectations, is done not with solemn expression or deep sorrow on their faces.
Instead, body breakers chopped the body with laughter and smell as if they are doing other ordinary farm work, because Tibetan Buddhists believe that keeping a light-hearted atmosphere can help guide the dead to transcend from darkness to the next life.
When the flesh is eaten up by vultures, the body breaker will smash the bone into pieces and mix it with tsampa (staple food for Tibetans, made of barley flour) to feed the vultures.