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Death around the world: Tibetan funerals and sky burials

Tibetan Buddhist statue overlooking Himalayan mountains

Tibet, nicknamed ‘the roof of the world’, is a region to the north of the Himalayan mountains, with a complex culture influenced heavily by Buddhism. Ancient native Tibetan customs combine with Buddhist religious beliefs to give Tibet some of the most fascinating death rituals in the world.

Bardo and the Book of the Dead

Many Tibetan beliefs about death are documented in an ancient book called the Bardo Thodol, or Bar Do Thos Grol. This literally translates as ‘Liberation through hearing during the intermediate state’. Often in the West this book is known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book is believed to have been written in the 8th Century by Padmasambhava, an Indian Buddhist master. The book was then buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and not re-discovered until six centuries later.

Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness or spirit lives on after death. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that after death the spirit enters a state of being called Bardo, literally meaning ‘intermediate state’. The Bardo Thodol describes the different types of Bardo in detail.

In normal life there are three Bardos the Buddhist experiences: their consciousness when they are awake, when they are meditating, and when they are dreaming. After death, however, the person experiences three different Bardos. These are: Chikhai Bardo at the moment of death, Chonyid Bardo, in which the person experiences visions of Buddha in various forms, and the Sidpa Bardo, which features hallucinations and finishes with rebirth. These hallucinations typically involve the symbolic Yab-Yum intertwining of a male and female figure, representing compassion, wisdom and divine unity.

Illustration of the intertwined male and female forms of Yab-Yum A representation of Yab-Yum, the symbolic figure thought to be seen during the final stage of Bardo during death.

It is believed that transition of the spirit from the body, through the realm of Bardo to rebirth takes around 49 days after the death. The friends and family of the person who died will usually engage in various death rituals for these 49 days, including sponsoring monks to pray for their relative at the local monastery. Sometimes families will give up worldly possessions and wealth to ensure the spirit’s safety during these 49 days.

Tibetan funeral arrangements

The Bardo Thodol says that immediately after a death, a white cloth should be placed over the face of the person who has died. They must then not be touched until the spirit separates from the body and moves into Bardo. It is believed that this takes between three and a half and four days.

A Buddhist priest may perform rituals to help the spirit’s passage into Bardo. This involves mystic chanting and inspecting the skull to see whether the spirit has successfully departed.

During these four days after the death, relatives and friends of the person who has died will gather at their home and stay there until the funeral. The body of the person who has died is offered food and drink at every meal and usually remains in the house with the guests.

Inside a Tibetan monastery Buddhist monks and priests play a large part in Tibetan funeral arrangements and rituals by praying and leading the procession.

After a death, a Buddhist astrologer, known as tsi-pa, will cast a death horoscope. This is based on when the person died and determines when the body can be touched again, how the family should bury them, and which funeral rites should be used.

Once the body can be touched and the funeral is arranged, the funeral procession will begin to move the person to the place of burial. Traditionally, Tibetans never use coffins, caskets, or any other means of concealing the body. Instead it is carried on a light wooden frame by two people. After the body is moved for burial, a picture or sculpture of the person who has died is placed where their body lay and kept there for the rest of the 49 days of Bardo.

Traditionally the funeral procession is led by the lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader, who ties a scarf to the corpse, inviting the dead to follow the right path into its next life and not to trouble living relatives. The lama may chant and use a small miniature hand-drum. Other priests may use trumpets and handbells.

Tibetan burial practices

Buddhists may ‘bury’ or dispose of the dead in several different ways, each corresponding to one of the four elements. Earth is a ground burial, which is not typically favoured in Tibet because of the rocky ground and beliefs about the spirit returning to the body. Fire is cremation, which in Tibet was traditionally reserved for noblemen, as wood to build a funeral pyre is sparse in the rocky Tibetan mountains.

Water and air burials are more unusual. The idea behind both of these is that the Buddhist should give their body back to nature after death. For water burial, the body is placed in a river or lake, with the intention that fish and other creatures will eat it.

Multi-coloured Tibetan flags on a mountain-top Colourful Tibetan prayer flags may be used to mark the site of a sky burial, as well as other important places.

Similarly, sky burial involves leaving the body to be eaten by birds of prey, most commonly vultures. Though this may sound gruesome, it is seen as an act of generosity on the part of the person who has died, since nature can benefit from their death. Since Tibetan Buddhists believe that the physical body is temporary but the spirit lives on, they are not concerned about preserving the body of the person who has died.

When there is nothing but bones left, sometimes the family will return to collect the bones. These will then be ground up into dust and baked into bread, and once again fed to the birds. This ensures that every part of the person is given to nature.

For Westerners, these practices may seem shocking, but sky burials are firmly rooted in the spiritual beliefs of Buddhism. Because the bereaved family understands that the spirit will be reborn, they are less attached to the physical body of their loved one. Their death may cause them to grieve, but the funeral and burial customs ensure that they continue to be a part of universe and the circle of life.