Heavenly Death - A Tibetan Sky Funeral

by Avner Ofer

 

The body is laid out in the open on the rocky terrain and meticulously skinned and dissected. The bones are crushed and mixed with tsampa -- a mixture of Yak butter and flour. Prayers are chanted, by the burial squad, as time for the "feast" nears. Vultures, hawks and ravens sweep down upon bloody remains, and with great zest rip into the human flesh. As the bones are polished by the satisfied birds, the remains are gathered and burnt in a ceremonial fire. With this act another Tibetan sky funeral ends, "uniting the spirit of the dead with the universe." Miraculously, I had the exclusive privilege to witness such an event, while traveling in Asia a few years ago.
feeding the birds
broken truck Lamuso, a small provincial village in the remote north western part of the Sichuan province, lies in the western part of China. That is where this story unfolds. After an unforgettable day of hitchhiking, on top of a local truck, through the barren land with vast plains, blue crisp skies and fresh cold air filling my lungs, I found myself in Lamuso. It immediately struck me as similar to a town portrayed in a western movie. Replacing the western cowboys were Tibetan men, riding their horses, carrying weapons, and looking wild as ever. Wishing to "acculturate" myself to the new surroundings, I bought an original, hand made weapon--a Tibetan knife. With it in hand, I started exploring this strange land, as did Marco Polo centuries ago.
SkyB2_s.jpg (33474 bytes)

I must thank my adventurous spirit, for it was that which led me to that gloomy mountain the following day. Climbing up the path on the outskirts of the village, was the start of my adventure. After passing an exquisite monastery, spiritually darkened by the overhead clouds, I caught a glimpse of movement on the near-by hill. Intrigued, I continued towards the movement, and as I approached the site a clear picture emerged. Fifty to sixty huge, bald and hungry looking vultures, were jumping down the mountain towards three gruesome looking Tibetan men who were preparing for their arrival.

Again, movies came into mind, but this time they were horror movies. The sky was dark and gloomy. A cold silent wind was blowing down the mountain. Body parts, blood, torn clothes, vultures, and three blood stained men were decorating the rocky mountainous terrain. The vultures, just a few feet from me, were fighting over the human flesh. Jumping, pouncing, and threatening while pieces of meat dangled from their massive beaks, they paid little attention to the onlookers. Not that the onlookers appeared any less horrific, with blood stained hands and clothes, grim looks and massive frightening knives in their hands.     Avner with burial crew

I felt as though I was thrown into a scene from a Hitchcock movie as a bystander, not knowing the plot, and exposed to frightful experiences. Though, after a few minutes the name of the movie came to mind--Birds, or better yet The Vultures of a Tibetan Sky Funeral.

That realization brought about a gush of overwhelming emotions. The throbbing pain in my chest, as my heart pounded aggressively, proved how emotional this experience was for me. My head spun, my stomach turned, and my legs shook as the events took place in front of my eyes. "I am so fortunate. No tourists ever witness such an event. This is amazing." A voice was saying in my head. I read about such a ceremony but never imagined being a witness to one. I was flabbergasted and shocked by this incident. Looking around me, while my senses were returning to their usual awareness, I noticed the three Tibetan men chanting prayers as prayer flags blew wildly about.

burning remains

It seemed as though the wind suddenly died down; the world returned to spinning in its usual rhythm, and the vultures calmed down. The "food" became sparse, and so the vultures started hopping up the mountain, where they spread their huge wings and soared into the melancholy sky. The burial crew, quietly, peacefully lit dry sticks and incense, gathered the remains and burnt them. As the smoke spread, gliding upwards, the men mounted their horses and rode away. Only I was left standing there amidst the smell of smoke, ashes and incense. Slowly, I climbed the mountain to view the graceful flight of the "beasts."

Sitting atop that mountain, on the cold rocks, observing the birds heading home, I pondered on our human existence. I breathed deeply the cold, low level oxygen air and relaxed. I realized what a strange, remarkable, and fascinating event I had witnessed.    I became aware, on that lonely mountain top, of how people differ in religion, belief, and customs but at the same time are totally identical to each other. No matter what procedure exists, whether placing a body in the ground or feeding it to the birds, people of all cultures feel the same sense of loss. We all "bury" our loved ones. We all mourn for the loss of family members. We all miss our lost friends. Sitting quietly on that mountain, in a far away land, among strangers with different customs and beliefs, I felt connected. I felt part of the human race. I felt alive.

 

 

 

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