Tibetan sky burial photographs


Vultures cover a human body in a Tibetan "sky burial"

An astonishing series of photographs of a Tibetan “sky burial,” where a corpse is cut up and fed to vultures, with the remains being pounded into dust, has been viewed almost three quarters of a million times in 24 hours.

Vultures peck at a human skull, which has been almost entirely stripped of flesh

The images (view here) are very graphic, but as Justin Whitaker says, “As a poignant reminder of the impermanence of this body, they’re worth viewing.”

According to Wikipedia, in Tibet the practice is known as jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds.”

Sky burial is traditional in Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for interment to be practical, and where a lack of wood makes cremation unfeasible.

This kind of burial is a kind of meditation in itself. There’s long been a tradition in Buddhism of using corpses in order to reflect on impermanence and to reduce attachment to the human form. For example, in order to develop mindfulness the monk is encouraged to see his own body in the following way…

..as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures… a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons… a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons… a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons… bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a breast bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull… the bones whitened, somewhat like the color of shells… piled up, more than a year old… decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.’

By contrast, Western funeral practices tend to be very sanitized, to the point where many people have never seen a corpse. It’s almost as if we don’t want to think about our own morality, even at funerals.

By contrast, the Buddha suggested that we reflect often on the facts that we are prone to old age, sickness, and death. The point of this was not to induce depression, but to help us remember that our time here is brief, so that we make good use of it. Reflecting, for example, that we do not have much time with our loved ones can help us appreciate them more, and argue with them less. Remembering that our lives are short encourages us to make our lives meaningful.

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • Margaret Pinzone
    September 30, 2012 7:06 pm

    ive looked at this image a few times and thought hard about how it fits into the Buddhist belief of impermanence. At first I thought, why is it that humans can’t eat animals. but animals can eat us humans? ok..so i answered my own question…the human died of natural causes and wasnt killed to feed anything/anyone…so, why not feed living creatures? I guess my question is, what came first, the belief that our bodies arent permanent, therefore we should picture them being poked, picked at, eaten by animals, or was it that there wasnt enough wood to burn them, and the terrain in Tibet wasnt conducive to a burial? I personally find the image disturbing, as I would like to think that a human body should be treated with a bit more respect and dignity. But then again. we dont let animals die in dignity either. So, I dont agree with either. No life should be killed for food..and nothing should be allowed to eat a human or animal.

    • Well, if you bury a human body, it’s still going to be eaten :) You just don’t see the process.

      As for dignity, isn’t that a matter of attitude? If a human body is cut up and fed to animals with reverence and respect, is this different from putting it in a hole in the ground for worms to eat?

      I’m happy to think that after my death, the elements that constitute my body will return to the cycle of life. I’d be very happy to see my body fed to vultures, although that’s not very likely. I’d certainly be more happy with that than with my body being pumped full of toxic chemicals and plastered with cosmetics before being put in a box (these days mostly made of plastic) underground. And being burned isn’t very friendly to the environment.

  • I’m a therapist now but was a RN for many years in an ICU and an Emergency Department of a busy hospital. No matter how traumatic the deaths, at some point we covered the body & protected family, friends and staff from the body and perphaps from what we had done to the body in an attempt to prolong life.
    I was disturbed by the practicality of the practice. If I had been raised in Tibet, I suppose I would have found the US practice’s death death-defying.

  • Bodhipaksa,

    Namaste. While looking at the photos of the ritual, I ran the gamut of emotions from revulsion and nausea to indifference and ease. Later, I saw the cycle of life in the process and accepted that – at death – the body is of no more use to me and has some benefit to the birds (or other animals) for food.

    I never found our Western way of putting dead bodies in nice clothes and inside of metal boxes only to be buried in the cold ground appealing. And I understand that cremation is actually a very toxic process to the environment. I would accept and welcome such a burial as the sky burial.

    Thank you all for expanding our minds and awareness. )

  • Thought twice re watching photos but decided to as the body was dead,, and although in my westen eyes it sort of amounts to desercration of a body in one sense, but also a very natural process, of what happens naturally to the body.

    I am surprised that one was allowed to take photos. I think there is a huge difference between watching something like this as opposed to the killing and carnage that occurs everyday via mans inhumanity towards each other, from war, from murder and even during autoposy.

    Thank you for exposing us to another culture, a different experience, and challenging what we see as normal or not so normal. May we continue to grow and expound in our accepetance of other cultural norms.

  • If your born into a culture that deals with the outer shell of our beloved ones in this way then obviously it is what it is in UK culture we do things differently and you have to understand the cultural differences and why.


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