What Is A Sky Burial?

A sky burial site in Sichuan, China. Editorial credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com.
A sky burial site in Sichuan, China. Editorial credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com.

Burial is one of the most sacred and ritualized activities in most communities around the world. It is often considered an act of respect to the dead. Burial is also meant to give the bereaved family closure and prevent them from witnessing their loved one decomposes. In some communities, burial ushers the deceased into the afterlife. During the burial, the deceased is placed into an excavated pit or trench then covered. However, a unique way of interment known as sky burial is practiced in some Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and parts of India.

Sky Burial

Sky burial is a type of burial in which the deceased is placed on top of a mountain to decompose or to be scavenged on by animals such as vultures. It is a type of excarnation practiced in some of provinces and regions of China including Tibet, Mongolia, Sichuan, and Qinghai, and also parts of India like Sikkim. Sky burial is mainly common among the Vajrayana Buddhists. According to them, it does not make sense to preserve a dead body since life has completely left it. Sky burial is meant to decently and in the best was possible dispose of the dead.

Sky burial is performed in specific places in Tibet. One of the famous jhator sites is the Drigung Monestry. The procedure takes place on a flat rock and relatives of the deceased may remain nearby until the process is completed.

The Origin Of Sky Burial

According to the archeological findings in the region of Tibet, the sky burial may have originated from the ancient defleshing the dead in the region. The practice may have been as a result of some practical reasons. The ground in much of Tibet is hard and rocky to dig graves while timber is also scarce for cremation. The ancient defleshing in the Tibet is thought to be linked to a suspected ceremonial sky burial in Gobekli Tepe, approximately 11,500 years BP.

The sky burial custom was first recorded in the 12th century in the Buddhist “Book of the Dead.” The procedure appears to have been influenced by the Tibetan tantricism. Initially, the sky burial was considered primitive by the governments of both China and Mongolia banning the practice. However, it is still commonly practiced in rural areas.

Why Sky Burial?

Sky burial is part of instructional teachings on the temporary nature of life among the Tibetan Buddhists. It is considered a means by which the dead provide food to sustain the living such as vultures. Tibetan Buddhists believe that there is no need of preserving the dead since life has totally departed the body and that the body has nothing but the flesh.


Prior to the sky burial procedure, monks chant mantra around the body and burn incense. The monks may also be involved in the dissembling of the body. However, dissembling is mainly done by “body-breakers.” Once the monks are through with the chants, the body is given to the vultures to devour the flesh and the internal organs. The bones are then broken up, ground, and mixed with tsampa, a type of barley flour, then given to the birds that waited for the vulture to depart. In some instances, the whole body may be chopped into pieces, crushed, and mixed with tsampa before giving to the vultures.


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