Tuesday, November 17, 2009


SKY BURIAL: The chopping up of a human corpse and feeding it to vultures.
As we were leaving Litang, the hotel manager told us that a Lama was coming to the town this morning to perform a funeral ceremony on 3 corpses ready for sky burial. The families were welcoming foreign guests but the rules were simple. "Strictly no photos during the cutting up of the corpses. Once the vultures start feeding on the bodies, then photos are welcome", as the belief is that the dead are beginning their journey to the heavens.It was without doubt, the most gruesome scene of my life. The dead included an old woman, a middle-aged man, a 5 year old child and there were about 60 vultures either circling the sky or patiently sitting on the nearby hill top. The ceremony was over in literally moments and then the 'cutter' stepped forward, dressed like a butcher, with a long apron, an axe and a large knife. The giant vultures landed and came in close. The sound of their 5ft wing span cutting the air as the cutter divided up the body into smaller chunks. His work was done after about 10 minutes. He stepped away and a feeding frenzy began involving about 30 birds on one body. The vultures fought amongst themselves for a share. Their heads soaked in blood, they fought "tug-of-war" style with lumps of skin. Within 10 minutes all that remained was a reddened skeleton and feathers. The cutter stepped forward again, and using the back of his axe against a rock, he broke down the bones to dust and mixed it with barley. Once this was complete, the birds stepped in again and completed the ritual.To chop up a human body and feed it to wild animals goes against all that I would consider moral. But its just a case of perspective. To these people its seen as a practical solution within the constraints of their surroundings. Its seen as a generous offering in the natural environment in which they feel so much a part of. Rather than seeing a naked corpse, cut up and devoured by giant, ugly (?) birds, they see a necessary process in the delivering their dead to heaven. Ultimately we feed our dead to worms.It was, of course, the strangest funeral I have ever attended. And strange for many reasons. Afterwards we met many of the mourners. They were full of smiles and very welcoming. They viewed my photos and using sign language, I explained that I was from Ireland and that we buried or burned our dead. I pointed to the sky above and explained that their friend was on the way to Heaven. They seemed to enjoy our simply sign language discussion and I was even offered the axe handle to help the cutter grind up the bones. I declined and Markus and I made our way towards the bus station.
(Here is a vid I came across on youtube that reminded me of the sky burial I witnessed www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8DgiROpEPM But this is not the actual funeral I attended. We were asked not to take any photos till the vultures had landed started feeding on the bodies. And remember, I described this as "the most gruesome scene of my life". Are you sure you want to view this?)


Andy said...

Mate - your account of the Sky Burial is incredible...

I should have been asleep an hour ago - but I have to keep reading.


Marco70 said...

Yeh, absolutely awesome.

Never heard of that before.

What an eye opener!

RoughSpirit said...

Sadly the video has been removed from Youtube! :-/