Stupa burial and cremation are reserved for high lamas who are being honored in death. Sky burial is the usual means for disposing of the corpses of commoners. However, it is not considered suitable for children who are less than 18, pregnant women, or those who have died of infectious disease or accident. The origin of sky burial remains largely hidden in Tibetan mystery.
Sky burial is a ritual that has great religious meaning. Tibetans are encouraged to witness this ritual, to confront death openly and to feel the impermanence of life. They believe that the corpse is nothing more than an empty vessel. The spirit, or the soul, of the deceased has exited the body to be reincarnated into another circle of life. It is believed that the Drigung Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism established the tradition in this land of snow, although there are other versions of its origin.
The corpse is offered to the vultures. It is believed that the vultures are Dakinis. Dakinis are the Tibetan equivalent of angels. In Tibetan, Dakini means "sky dancer". Dakinis will take the soul into the heavens, which is understood to be a windy place where souls await reincarnation into their next lives. This donation of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food. Sakyamuni, one of the Buddhas, demonstrated this virtue. To save a pigeon, he once fed a hawk with his own flesh.
After death, the deceased will be left untouched for three days. Monks will chant around the corpse. Before the day of sky burial, the corpse will be cleaned and wrapped in white cloth. The corpse will be positioned in a fetal position, the same position in which the person had been born. The ritual of sky burial usually begins before dawn. Lamas lead a ritual procession to the charnel ground, chanting to guide the soul. There are few charnel grounds in Tibet. They are usually located near monasteries. Few people would visit charnel grounds except to witness sky burials. Few would want to visit these places.
After the chanting, the body breakers prepare the body for consumption by the vultures. The body is unwrapped and the first cut is made on the back. Hatchets and cleavers are used to quickly cut the body up, in a definite and precise way. Flesh is cut into chunks of meat. The internal organs are cut into pieces. Bones are smashed into splinters and then mixed with tsampa, roasted barley flour.
As the body breakers begin, juniper incense is burned to summon the vultures for their tasks, to eat breakfast and to be Dakinis. During the process of breaking up the body, those ugly and enormous birds circle overhead, awaiting their feast. They are waved away by the funeral party, usually consisting of the friends of the deceased, until the body breakers have completed their task. After the body has been totally separated, the pulverized bone mixture is scattered on the ground. The birds land and hop about, grabbing for food. To assure ascent of the soul, the entire body of the deceased should be eaten. After the bone mixture, the organs are served next, and then the flesh.
This mystical tradition arouses curiosity among those who are not Tibetan. However, Tibetans strongly object to visits by the merely curious. Only the funeral party will be present at the ritual. Photography is strictly forbidden. They believe that photographing the ritual might negatively affect the ascent of the soul.