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Death. How do they do it in Tibet?

By Susanne Duijvestein, sustainable funeral director of Bijafscheid

In the high mountains of Tibet and China, there is the age-old tradition where a dead body is left in the mountains as food for predators and scavengers. Not really a funeral, but an excarnation. A brief introduction to jhator or sky burial for people with a strong stomach.  

Sky Burial

Living in cold regions of high altitude has the limitation that the ground is frozen for most of the year, no spade gets in. This also results in little tree growth, which makes wood too scarce. Neither burial nor cremation is therefore an option.

Over the course of time people there have turned to the alternative of excarnation (also known as defleshing), mainly for practical reasons. But there is also a spiritual reason. From the Buddhist perspective our body is seen as only a temporary nature shell and in the light of generosity we give back to other living beings, the body goes back into nature. As food for animals, passed on in a new life cycle. After all, dying for Buddhists is a transition from one earthly life to the next.

As you can see, no tree in sight and quite cold

How does that work then?

The jhator must take place sometime within 7 days of someone's death. The ritual is planned and prepared by a clergyman, a llama. Who does the actual execution differs per region. Sometimes monks, sometimes the men from the village, sometimes there are special jhator masters who do the work.

Performed according a local ritual, often with tea and incense, the men ensure that the body of the deceased is wrapped and taken to a flat spot in the mountains. Usually this is a set place for the people from the village which is sometimes decorated with colored prayer flags or memorial stones.

First the men have to prepare the body. A kind of executioner work. The body is chopped up, the skin cut, the bones are smashed with a hammer. The more men help out, the faster it goes. But sometimes someone does this alone.

The huge vultures now of course know what is happening. They gather in large numbers at the site, impatiently awaiting their meal.

As soon as the body is in pieces and the ritual is over, the vultures strike.

The vultures and any other scavengers or predators eat all the flesh of the body. After a few hours the skeleton that remains is then pulverized and mixed with flour, after which also eaten by the animals. Until there is nothing left.

It must be a fierce ritual to be a part of, an uncensured confrontation with one's own transience. But from the Buddhist perspective, exactly that is the purpose and philosophy. It is the practice of learning not to be afraid anymore of the reality of earthly death. Therefore, relatives of the deceased are often also encouraged to attend the entire ritual.

Something different than from our Western point of view, where death often is hidden behind the scenes of a crematorium, right?

Some may think: I want this too, others don't stomach the story from the first paragraph on. If you belong to the latter category, the sheer amount of photos you can find through Google may be a little too explicit.

Read also


Deyja is an intercultural investigation into death, grief and loss. An online space to use the period of grief and mourning as special opportunity into silence and to discover answers to humanity's eternal questions about life and death.


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