The Sky Burial

Once in China, I saw a Tibetan sky burial.

It took less than ten minutes for the birds to eat him. The feathered scrum writhed as more and more vultures shuffled over the hills, joining in on the meal. The largest ones jostled for the best bits, whilst the late-comers perched nearby, fighting over wayward slivers of human flesh.

Mid way through, the head was separated from the rest of the body. It rolled downhill, landing at my feet. One lidless eye stared up at me.

Soon there was nothing but a bloodied skeleton left. One of the monks used a hammer to grind the bones with flour. This too was fed to the birds. A few minutes later everything was gone, except a few teeth. The vultures cleaned their beaks in the grass before dispersing. Some took to the air; others waddled back over the hills.

When their work was done, the monks too left. They packed into a pick-up truck, taking the hammer and body bag with them. Once they were gone, I was alone with the few remaining birds. They eyed me up hungrily, the morning sun reflecting off their curved beaks.

It was a long walk back to town, but the way was easy. Though, occasionally I had to stop to pick teeth out of my boot treads.

Long suppressed by the Chinese government, Tibetan sky burials have been a preferred method of corpse disposal on the plateau for centuries. Not only is it seen as a final act of generosity, it also makes economic sense. It’s difficult to dig graves in the rocky ground, and cremation at high altitudes is an exorbitant waste of scarce timber. The vultures, however, are usually hungry. If they aren’t, it’s considered a very, very bad sign.

After seeing the burial, I thought I’d be at least a little disturbed. First the monks had cut slits in the man’s limbs and torso to whet the vulture’s appetites. The man was then literally torn apart. Yet, it wasn’t violent. If anything, the experience had an strange beauty. The burial was natural- at least, more natural than my organic shampoo. It was pure, unlike the stench of industry. It was honest; no advertising, no PR. It wasn’t commodified.

You don’t need life insurance for a funeral like that.

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