Sky burial

During my trip to Western Sichuan everything went smooth. I visited places I wanted to see, Covid restrictions got temporarily loosened up and on top of that, vast mountain spaces were very soothing to the soul. Despite all this I have to say that I felt a hunger for something more, especially cultural experiences. I went to Sichuan at a time when all kind of religious celebrations had happened a month before and other kinds of activities took place in Summer. Monasteries were standing empty while monks were busy with their daily business comprising of strolling streets of nearby towns and shopping.

I knew that the only way to fill this gap was to see a traditional, Tibetan sky burial. For many people who travel to Tibet it’s one of those things that must be seen, although for most of western travelers it’s utmost shocking. It’s not my habit to plan everything thoroughly when I travel, I rather count on what luck or coincidence puts in front of me, until then I hadn’t got a chance to see the whole funeral ceremony. It happened a few times that I spotted vultures circling around hilltops what inevitably was a sign a burial taking place but everytime I went that direction it turned out to had been finished. So by the occasion of visiting one of the main towns in Western Sichuan, Litang I decided to do at least a minimum of planning so that could finally see it. I learned that burials happen on odd weekdays, it was Tuesday and I knew where exactly the sky burial platform was.

Cross bardo

According to Tibetan beliefs, there are six bardo: spiritual and existential states. All bardo are transitional with some overlapping like the first bardo that begins with the first breath after birth and continues until death, which is simply the bardo of life. They are bardo referring to spiritual experiences, i.e. bardo of meditation and dreams. As many as three bardos are related to death and posthumous existence, although it would be more appropriate to define it as experiencing something like a vision, a divine understanding of the universe in all its complexity, ultimate enlightenment in relation to one’s own existence. The last of these three bardo is a transitional state, the moment of the soul’s journey until it takes its first breath in a new body, is perhaps the most common to which this term applies. Sidpa bardo, as the Tibetans call this state of spiritual transmigration, takes place in the heavens. That is where the spirit awaits a body to begin another bardo of life, and this is resolved by, let’s call it karmic burdens.

Believing that the soul with the remnants of its temporal, corporeal existence goes to the heavens on the wings of birds and waits there for another body is quite compatible with this type of burial. Must be, because the tradition goes back eleven thousand years. This method of burial was determined by practical considerations, and with time the prevailing beliefs grew around the ceremony. Burying the dead in the ground of the Tibetan Plateau, where nothing grows apart from grass, and only rocks lay under a thin layer of barren soil, would be quite difficult. The scarce availability of fuel made it impossible to burn corpses, only with some exceptions. For example, those who died of leprosy were burned, believing that the disease could have a bad effect on birds that ate a person passing away from this desease. A wise solution, despite the fact that no one thought about possible epidemiological effects. In any case, “returning” the body to the circulation in nature seems to be the most natural solution, especially in such conditions.

Wednesday

At the foot of the hill, which serves as a platform, there is a cell made of bricks, I don’t know for what purpose, and a garbage can from which smelly smoke is rising. A bit further, on the sidelines, a bonfire with a few locals gathered around, that is, service for funeral ceremonies. I immediately made my way towards them and before I finished voicing out my greeting I was already holding a cup of milk tea and yogurt. When asked if I can join in and watch the funeral, they give me absolutely hassle-free permission and then we had a chit chat. I learn that one funeral has just finished, but luckily for me, there will be another one in a moment. I patiently answer typical questions about me and so we are chatting when at some point several cars pull up nearby. The gentlemen without a word rise from their seats and move towards them. From the cars, they take out some things, tools and a white bundle, which one of them swings on his back and then they all climb the hill. I follow their footsteps and settle at a reasonably far distance. Neither do I want to see everything with too much detail, nor will I be brazenly running around with my camera in between. Anyways they probably wouldn’t let me. A place on a slightly elevated platform is therefore comfortable, the more so as I watch the staff bustling with their duties in a completely routine manner. A bit further, in the rays of the morning sun, there is a whirling mass of screeching noises, joined with time by more vultures floating in the air on wings with a span of more than two meters.

One of the “funeral masters”, the one with the bundle, lays it on the ground and untangles it, revealing a small human body resting in a fetal position. Just like at the beginning of its bodily existence. Probably that is why at first this bundle seemed to me far too small to hide the body, but yet it did. Several of the service personnel, dressed in protective coveralls, equipped with long and sharp knives leaning over the body, perform an activity that is to significantly facilitate the consumption of soft tissue by vultures. This activity is actually a thorough (ugly expression) dressing and partial fragmentation of the body. The feathered army at this point waves and screams in anticipation. Every now and then one of the vultures breaks off the ranks and tries to get closer to the body, but is immediately disciplined by one of the Tibetans waving their jackets and then it returns to its place with the head, like all the others, turned in the obvious direction. This operation takes a while and then everyone with knives moves away at once, making room for the feathered cluster. The vultures, like a whirling mass, move over the body, surrounding it on all sides. The morning air fills with screeching noises. It takes a little while, unsurprisingly little, after which the skeleton itself remains on the ground. The vultures are disciplined again. The “masters” enter the action again, this time in place of knives thrown somewhere in the grass, equipped with hatchets and a large boulder brought in advance, which in the next task will serve as a hard base, like an anvil. Vultures, of course, wouldn’t be able to cope with the bones, and those dragged by birds within a few meters are collected and, with the help of the mentioned axes, completely ground into a pulp, mixed with butter and barley flour into a solid substance. As before, on a signal the service group moves away from the prepared “mixture” on which the vultures are throwing themselves. After a dozen or so seconds, the man wrapped in a white sheet does not leave even a trace of existence.

After all, the whole group settles back around the fire, where a simple meal and some kind of funeral ceremony await them. At this time, those who are present, for the intention of the burried recite a mantra and burn barley flour. This is actually the only moment when any kind of funeral ritual can be observed (I omit the moment when the human body rests in his house until the funeral). Everything else is done in a very down-to-earth and routine manner. The process is completely devoid of any theatricality or ceremonial unlike Western funeral ceremonies, where each participant is somehow part of the show from a slow, very muted steps of those who carry the coffin to lofty speeches by priests or other speakers and mourners in dark colors. The family does not participate in the Tibetan burial, there is no crying, sadness or a hint of performance. There is only a team to do their job, which they do quickly and efficiently without any metaphysical elation or the aforementioned theatricality. Everything makes a very down-to-earth impression despite its macabreness, also thanks to the approach of the “funeral masters”. They seem very calm and open-minded, without the impression that all this is accompanied by any taboo. After all, death in Tibetan culture is not the end of everything, but only a transition to the next bardo.