The tibetan sky burial involves the body being fed to vultures. Once the spirit leaves the body there is no longer any need for the body. The body (wrapped in white cloth) is placed on a platform of stones (in a fenced off area designated as a burial site). It is then unwrapped and sliced up with huge cleavers by a butcher (the Tomden), to expose flesh and bone. The butchers are often monks who specialise in the task of butchery. The butchers work methodically and professionally. Vultures are attracted by juniper smoke and the exposed flesh and begin to eat the body. The Tomden then returns to the body cutting off arms and legs and feeding it to the vultures.

The Tomden may work with other Tomden and throw pieces of flesh to the vultures. He also smashes and pulverises bones (with rock or sledgehammer), including the skull, feeding the brain (after it has been mixed with flour) and marrow to the crows and other birds, until nothing is left. The Tomden may also create skull bowls or thigh bone trumpets from the remains.


Tibetan sky burial, or jhator, is the practice of leaving the bodies of the dead for the birds to eat. The body is usually chopped into pieces to make things go faster.

This practice probably began because, while in Tibetan Buddhism (and Buddhism in general) cremation is the preferred method of disposing of the dead, there's just not enough wood on the Tibetan plateau for every Tom, Dick and Harry to be burned. Only the rich people can afford such luxury. While burial would also be an acceptable option, the hard rocky ground and a layer of permafrost makes this difficult.

Sky burial is not uncommon in Asia, and Buddhist sky burial probably originated in Tibet. The practice is first described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). The exact origins of this text are a little cloudy, but it may have been put down as early as 800 CE. China tried to outlaw the practice in the 1960s, but by the 1980s it was legalized again. In Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries where Zoroastrianism is (or was once) practiced, the cultural reasons for sky burial are different, and are probably unrelated.

One other form of body disposal in Tibet is mummification. This is used for the highest religious leaders, like the Dalai Lama.

There is a special religious significance assigned to sky burial by Tibetans. A sky burial is seen as being a final act of compassion carried out by the dead. Being 'buried' in this fashion provides nourishment to other living beings, a theme seen several times in story of the earlier lives of the Buddha in the Jataka Tales, particularly in the story of King Shibi. It is seen as an act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others- even though the primary actor is already dead.

Additionally, Buddhists view attachment to the body as one of the more thorny desires to be rid of. Agreeing to have one's body disposed of in this manner is seen to embody a commitment to be rid of this attachment. It is therefore seen to bring merit to the deceased.

In some cases, a close relative is asked to preside over the ceremony (most Tibetans have (or would have had, prior to the Chinese invasion) at least one relative who is a monk). Viewing a sky burial is also said to be instructive- it teaches detachment, and fosters an awareness of mortality and impermanance. At the same time, a sky burial is considered a very private and sacred event; the curious should be warned that if you attempt to attend a burial without a personal invitation from the family of the deceased, you will almost certainly be chased off by rock-slinging mourners.

The sky burial practice, in many ways, is not far from other Buddhist death-related practices, such as the printing and distribution of Dhamma-related books or pamphlets at a funeral (done in Thailand, especially at the funerals of monks or meditation teachers), or the recitation of scriptures in the name of the deceased (done in several East Asian nations, including Japan, as well as in Theravada countries such as Thailand and Burma.

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