Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sky Burial

Warning: This entry contains dead bodies and vultures. Seriously.

Today in Litang (Sichuan Province) we awoke at seven and then ventured out of town to attend a Sky Burial. It is a Tibetan ritual where the deceased is hacked up by 'duoden man' and then fed to the awaiting vultures. It indeed sounds gruesome to our Western ears, but it is important that this ritual takes place within an Eastern, specifically Tibetan Buddhist world view of life and death. Buddhists believe (and after what we witnessed today, I can say they deeply believe and take very seriously) in reincarnation.

Here, it is believed that the soul of a person leaves the body upon death and is reincarnated or reborn into something else; another body, an animal, etc. Buddhism thinks of the body as a shell that the soul animates. Without the soul, the body is of no worth, sentimentally or practically.

Still, it was an uneasy thought (and sight) that such a completely utilitarian view of the human body was so strongly adhered to. There is no way that someone could accuse Buddhists of not having deeply held convictions in their spiritual systems!

The sky burial itself makes practical sense for Tibetans. In Tibet, even if the land wasn't frozen most of the year, and could be dug up, the Tibetan landscape is scarce. There is no dirt to bury their dead and there is hardly a tree to be cut for a cremation. Every bit of wood needs to be used for domestic heating and cooking.

For the event itself a man, wearing a full body blue, plastic apron, walked up to a face down, naked body that was roped to a stake in the ground so to keep the birds from dragging the body around the mountain side and began taking off the flesh with a knife. All the while, five, maybe four other men surrounded the working man to keep the vultures at bay. The skin of the body was very pale, completely unlike the warm, reddish browns that we see in the faces of most Tibetans we greet in town. The children in particular all seem to have the most rosy of cheeks. Given the green light, the vultures ambushed the body and it disappeared from sight behind a spherical wall of feathers. On occasion we could see the body being pulled this way or that by the hungry fowl. In especially dizzying yet vivid moments, we could clearly see the flesh being pulled off and apart. What do the families of those passed do while all this is taking place, you might be wondering? They sit on the hill, sometimes sipping tea, chatting and vaguely watching. Its not the sad, devastating occasion you would imagine. Within thirty minutes of being given the body, all that is left as the curtain of vultures parted, was the red skeletal remains of whomever that used to be. At that point, the birds were shoved away so that the duoden could go back over and begin breaking the body apart with an axe at the major joints, hips, shoulders, neck, etc. Then, with the butt end of the axe he proceeded to crush the bones up, while mixing in a powder with the increasingly pulverized bones. The powder is then used to feed the crows that are also lurking nearby, waiting for their turn to take part in the feast. This wasn't the only action, though. There were three bodies being given a sky burial the morning we were there.

We had heard that these events could be quite good times for the deceased's family and friends, with much laughter and fun. While it certainly wasn't the solemn event that most funerals are back home, it wasn't the rip-roaring fun that we had heard about. We really weren't that surprised.

We were invited over to a circle of monks and laity and were asked to share in some yak tea and Tibetan bread. I could have done without the distinct 'yak' flavour of each item, but the genuine kindness behind the gesture was greatly appreciated. Smash, smash, smash went the axe butt onto the bones. 'Where are you from?' asked the monks nonchalantly as if we were sharing tea and bread at a cafe somewhere. Completely surreal. We choked down the yakky-yak tea and shoved our generous rounds of hard (stale or frozen, it was hard to say) bread into our pockets for 'later.'

The sky was a magnificent blue, the clouds were as marshmallows and the mountains impressively chiseled in every direction we looked. All in all this will be a memorable day for us. It gives a new perspective to the age old 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' bit heard at many Christian funeral services. Mulling over that well known phrase, I couldn't help but keep a short poem from creeping into my (Jonathan) head:

Sky Burial

Ashes to the vulture,
Dust to the crow,
With a fowl bowel movement
You will help the flowers grow!

K: Last summer I read a fantastic (and completely non-gory) book called Sky Burial. I couldn't put it down. Its short- a day on the dock would do. And I would highly recommend it. Sky Burial is the story of a Chinese woman whose husband, a colonel in the Chinese army, was called to help 'liberate' Tibet three months after they were married. He never returned. This woman spent her entire life looking for her husband. And this is her story. Look it up.

ps. Happy Father's Day!!
pps. Happy Birthday to Bryan, Adam and Jer!!


Laura said...

wow. That really must have been quite the sight. Funny how it really does come down to culture - whatever you're used to is what you think is normal. We think it's normal to dress up dead bodies and put them in expensive coffins with huge stones on top of them, and find the burial process really distressful. These people think it's normal to feed the body to the vultures in a fairly nonchalant way. Interesting trip, guys!

Ali said...

Enjoying your writing very much!! With love, 4 Mackenzies