Before going into the gruesome details of the process of Tibetan air burial, we will first dive deeper into the decomposition process that human bodies undergo after death. During the first three days after death, the organs within the body start to decompose, a process called autolysis (self-digestion). This process is initiated by the stopping of blood circulation as well as respiration, which means that the body has no way of taking in oxygen and letting out carbon dioxide, and therefore triggers the cell membranes of cells in the body to rupture and die. Rigor mortis also starts to set in during the first three days, which is the stiffening of the muscles in the body after death. Three to five days after death, the body starts to bloat up as the enzymes from the ruptured body cells start to create different gases and the bacteria in the body start to cause skin discoloration. This is also around the time when the body starts to smell very unpleasant which is due to a process called putrefaction. Each part of the body decomposes at different speeds, but a month after death, the body starts to liquify and all that remains in the hair, bones, and cartilage remain of the dead body.[i]
Air burials are done in a manner where the majority of the decomposition process is skipped and the body of the deceased person is eaten up and digested by vultures before it has time to decay on its own. The process of a air burial starts as soon as someone passes away, and it starts with the body being kept in a sitting position for three days. During the first 24 hours of “sitting,” the body is accompanied by a lama, which is a spiritual leader of the Tibetan tribes. The lama recites prayers from the “Bardo Thodol,” which is a book of spiritual literature and prayers that are used during spiritual rituals, like the process of air burials. After the three days of being in a sitting position, the body’s spine is broken, which makes it easier to carry the body to the burial site, called the dürtro, where the rest of the ritual will take place. By this time, only the first part of decomposition has started, and the body has not started to smell unpleasant yet. As the body is carried to the burial site, family members will usually follow and chant and play drums. When they reach the burial site, the body is laid face down on the ground and juniper incense is burned to attract the vultures as the rogyapa, started to cut apart the body. He first cuts off the hair on the body and then disembowels the body and cuts off the limbs. After chopping the body into smaller chunks with an ax, the vultures are given time to eat the body of the deceased and leave the bones. The rogyapa then takes the bones and pulverizes them and mixes the bone powder with barley flour so the even the bones can be consumed by the birds. This is the conclusion of the air burial and it is considered to be successful when the entire body is consumed by the birds.[ii]
So why do the Tibetans use this ritual process in order to dispose of their dead bodies? There are many different factors that may be in play here, but one of the biggest reasons why the Tibetans use air burial is the fact that they are totally incapable of burying their dead. The “soil” of Tibet is just a layer of permafrost that is centimeters thick that lays on top of solid rock, which would be impossible to dig holes in. Tibet also has a very limited number of trees, which is due to the fact that Tibet has a very high elevation and most of Tibet is above the tree line. Therefore, Tibetans are unable to cremate their dead using fire and extreme heat. Tibetans aren’t the only people who use the method of air burial. There are also other cultures in parts of India and Iran, specifically the Zoroastrians, who also opted for air burials in order to “bury” their dead. They believed that corpses are dirty and impure, and also able to be possessed by demons. Therefore, they didn’t think it was appropriate to bury them and risk contamination of their water sources, or to cremate them and contaminate the air with the fumes/smoke of the dead bodies. In Australia, certain tribes also performed a variation of air burial, where bodies would be put on raised platforms until only their bones were remaining, but this was mostly because of their fear of ghosts, and they thought that this process would keep the ghosts of the dead from haunting their villages. Surprising, this ritualistic process was also used in America, specifically by the Native Americans, who put corpses in trees for up to two years before taking the remains down and burying them in the ground.[iii]
Air burials are significantly more environmentally friendly than ground burials and cremation when it comes to the different methods of getting rid of dead bodies. Both ground burials and cremation processes have been proven to negatively influence the areas around where they take place. Cremation, for instance, increases the air pollution around the crematories due to the smoke and fumes that they create from burning the bodies. This increase in air pollution in these areas are proven to be caused by the crematories because the highest concentrations of air pollution are where it is closest to the crematories.[iv] Ground burials also cause problems for the people who live around burial sites. They have been tested and proven to impact the groundwater around them when they aren’t in the most ideal conditions for decomposition, which is bad because people usually rely on groundwater for drinking water and water to use for cleaning and bathing. This is a big health hazard since harmful pathogens could possibly be transported through the groundwater from the cemeteries where the dead bodies are buried.[v] On the other hand, air burials have no such implications because the body is being consumed by vultures in a matter of minutes and digested by the birds, which is a natural process that would occur with anything that a vulture would eat.
In understanding a custom such as air burials, it is imperative to view the custom in context of the culture in which it exists. In the case of Tibetan air burials, Tibetan Buddhism plays a primary role in the formation and continuation of the tradition. Without understanding Buddhist beliefs and the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, air burials may be gravely misunderstood.
Air burials are practiced in several regions around the world, but most notably, perhaps, in Tibet. The use of air burials’ time of origin in Tibet is unknown, but the custom was cited in the Book of the Dead, a 12th-century Buddhist work.[vi] The tradition is believed to have developed to satisfy Buddhist beliefs (most of the population follows Tibetan Buddhism) and as a practicality of disposing corpses in Tibet.
Buddhism was introduced in Tibet from India around the seventh century, but did not take hold as the major religion of Tibet until the ninth or tenth century.[vii] Today, over half of Tibet’s population follows Tibetan Buddhism. There are several different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, each with varying beliefs and practices, but the overall spiritual ideal of Tibetan Buddhism is “the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for all beings”.[viii] Prominent features of the tradition include its deities (qualities of enlightenment such as wisdom, compassion, etc.), meditation practices, and extensive teachings on death and dying.
Teachings on death and dying within the Buddhist tradition, specifically on one’s acceptance of death, focus on the idea of impermanence and non-attachment. Most Buddhist traditions stress the idea that one should not be attached to things in this world, because the nature of everything is temporary–impermanence is the only permanence.
Buddhists have a set of beliefs that surrounds physical death. At the time of death, the consciousness may take up to three and a half days to leave the body after physical death occurs (this refers to the cessation of all vital signs), according to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.[ix] For this reason, many Tibetans believe the body should not be touched for at least three days, so as not to disturb the consciousness in its journey. The consciousness then moves into a state of bardo, where it awaits reincarnation. When juxtaposed with the custom of air burials, one can see how the Buddhist belief system aligns with features of the burials ceremonies.
The initial part of the actual ceremony involves dismembering the body. In most cultures, especially those of the western world, this practice may be viewed as vulgar or barbaric. For Buddhists, however, it signifies the impermanent nature of existence and the practice of non-attachment to the physical realm. To face death and other tragedies of life, one must understand and accept the impermanent nature of everything. Death is viewed as a transformation or transition, so it is approached with a sense of serenity. Since Buddhists also believe that consciousness continues after death, the body is not of much importance. Thus, the symbolism of breaking the body is more important than any emotional attachments to the physical body.
The second portion of the ceremony involves feeding the dismembered body to birds, usually vultures. This portion is symbolic of the Buddhist virtue of compassion for all beings. Feeding the body, which no longer has function for the person to which it belonged, to the birds serves as a final act of charity on behalf of the deceased–he or she is providing food for living beings.[x]
Several issues can arise regarding the morality and ethical reasonings behind Tibetan air burials. Cultural differences in general pose questions to how ethical air burials are because of a difference in values and morals between societies. One ethical issue regarding Tibetan air burials is the influence the Chinese have on the process. During the video entitled “Sky Burials: Traditional Becomes Controversial Tourist Attraction”, a member of the Tibetan Buddhists comments on the immoral display of actions by Chinese tourists who visited the sacred grounds to witness a burial.[xi] Whilst there, the camera captured multiple tourists laughing and joking about the process as if it were a show. Regarding ethics, this is observed as being extremely disrespectful and irreverent. While this practice is not a primary mode of burial in China, laughing at a dead body being eaten piece by piece by vultures as a religious and sacred ceremony may be deemed as highly unethical.[xii]
While many Chinese view the Tibetan air burials as possibly grotesque and brutish, the process is a religious ceremony. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the vultures are like angels who take the souls of the deceased to heaven where they then await reincarnation.[xiii] Therefore, scoffing and belittling the sacred ceremony is not only offensive to those present for the burial, but also to the recently deceased who is completely vulnerable and has no voice to defend themselves.
Although it is unethical to intrude on this religious ceremony and mock it, the Chinese have made several legislative adjustments in order to ensure the physical safety and health of the vultures. This legislation is in place to ban air burials for bodies which have been infected or diseased in order to attempt to protect the vultures involved in the practice. Through the Tibetan air burials, there have been many cases reported of vultures with unexplained death.[xiv] This can be viewed as unethical treatment to the parties involved, such as the vultures. Therefore, but introducing new legislation to hopefully reverse this occurrence.
Another ethical concern of Tibetan air burials is the process in general. To many in different cultures, this procedure could possibly be viewed as grotesque and inhumane. Ethically, some could say that this mutilation of a body and feeding to animals could be seen as a disrespectful act which doesn’t properly honor the recently deceased. However, in many cultures cremation serves as a similar practice for the disposing of the deceased. Whereas in the Tibetan Buddhist culture they carve the body of the deceased and allow the vultures to eat the pieces as a gateway to the afterlife, in other cultures, such as the American culture, it is a common procedure to cremate the deceased to where their remains are ashes.[xv] Although air burial seems very blunt and gruesome to some, possibly even unethical, in the Tibetan Buddhist religion it is merely a traditional ceremony to allow their loved ones to pass peacefully. Similarly, the environmental implications that result from cremation can be argued to be unethical with regards to environmental health, whereas air burials are free from emissions and therefore more environmentally friendly.
There is intersectionality between morality and culture regarding Tibetan air burial. What some cultures deem as unethical may in turn be completely ethical in another culture. This is the case with the Tibetan Buddhists and more Westernized cultures. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer as to how one should proceed to dispose of the deceased, however, there are cultural differences that make these questions more prevalent and highly discussed. While there are certain ethical issues or question that may arise in regards to Tibetan air burial, determining whether or not they are valid or not is frequently a subjective issue to discuss.
[i] “What Are the Four Stages of Human Decomposition?” Aftermath. 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.aftermath.com/content/human-decomposition/.
[ii] Lamb, Robert. “How Sky Burial Works.” HowStuffWorks. July 25, 2011. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/cultural-traditions/sky-burial.htm.
[iv] Wang, Lin-Chi, Wen-Jhy Lee, Wei-Shan Lee, Guo-Ping Chang-Chien, and Perng-Jy Tsai. “Characterizing the Emissions of Polychlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans from Crematories and Their Impacts to the Surrounding Environment.” Environmental Science & Technology37, no. 1 (2003): 62-67. doi:10.1021/es0208714.
[v] Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira Da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99-106. doi:10.1111/j.1747-6593.2012.00330.x.
[vi] “Sky Burial.” Wikipedia. February 19, 2019. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial – CITEREFMartin1991.
[vii] John Zijiang Ding. “A Comparative Study of Han and Tibetan Views of Death.” Brigham Young University. April 1 2016. Accessed March 21, 2019. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1982&context=ccr
[viii] “Tibetan Buddhism.” The Buddhist Society: Tibetan Buddhism. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/tibetan-buddhism-1.
[ix] Sogyal, Patrick Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider Books, 2017. I referenced “The Practices of Dying” and “The Process of Dying” from Part two of the book. http://www.freespiritualebooks.com/uploads/5/0/5/8/50589505/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.pdf
[x] Marinasohma. “Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead.” Ancient Origins. November 15, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/sky-burial-tibet-s-ancient-tradition-honoring-dead-007016.
[xii] “Sky Burial in Tibet ,Tibetan Funeral Customs.” Tibet Travel and Tours – Tibet Vista. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.tibettravel.org/tibetan-local-customs/tibetan-funeral.html.
[xiii] Carney, Matthew. “Stumbling upon Ritual of Feeding the Dead to Vulture ‘angels’.” ABC News. September 16, 2017. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-16/stumbling-upon-ritual-of-feeding-the-dead-to-vulture-angels/8948332.
[xiv] Beijing, Richard Spencer in. “China Clamps down on Tibetan Sky Burials.” The Telegraph. January 13, 2006. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/tibet/1507762/China-clamps-down-on-Tibetan-sky-burials.html.
[xv] “How Is Cremation Done?” Cremation Resource. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://www.cremationresource.org/cremation/how-is-cremation-done.html.
By Isabel Stellato, Sara McCown, and Josephine Lee