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China 29: Sky burial

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


PLEASE NOTE: This is an account, from my 1985 diary, of how the Tibetans dispose of their dead. It is not sensational, but some people might find it upsetting. 

March 8

Get up while its still dark and walk out of Lhasa to see a sky burial. The sun rises as we leave the streets and go out, past a field of greenhouses and anti-aircraft guns, across a rubbish tip and part of the way up a mountain. There is a high ridge above us. It looks just like the desert and mountains that you see in cowboy films and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of apaches suddenly appeared against the skyline.

There are four of us; me, Agnetha, Mick, and Julie. We get to the place; there are seven men drinking tea around a bonfire; a few feet further on is a monk dressed very ornately and sporting a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He is beating time with a little hand-held drum. The men give us cups of hot sweet tea and offer us cigarettes.

One of them mimes a camera, and then makes a slitting motion across his throat. He is not joking. You can watch this ceremony, but they won’t allow you to photograph it. One American who tried it had a human heart pushed into his face and his camera smashed on a rock. The Swedish girl, Kristen, who is leaving today for Xigaze, told us last night  that when she came here a few days ago, she thought she did have permission, but when she got her camera out they threw stones at her, and one man chased her with a knife.

Why they let us watch at all, I don’t know. A bus toils up the track and some Chinese squaddies get out. They are unarmed, cheerfully jostling each other. They have obviously come to see the sights. The Tibetans stand up, get their knives out, and walk towards them. This is not what the soldiers were expecting and they falter, their smiles dying. They’re only young lads, far from home. They’ve just come for a trip out, and they don’t really get what is happening. But there is no misunderstanding the Tibetans. The bloke who dealt with us goes right up to them. It doesn’t take a degree in languages to understand that he is telling them to bugger off. Some of the soldiers point at us, and the Tibetan lifts his knife and says some more. There is a moment of silence and then the soldiers get back on the bus, and it drives away.

When the sun is fully up five of the Tibetans go down to a large rock below us. It is as if it were held between two knees, and we are standing on one of the knees. Three of the men sit down, side by side.

There are two small bundles on this rock and what looks like a lump hammer. There are joss sticks smoking everywhere in the earth, the air is heavy with the scent of incense and burning yak dung. The two men left standing sharpen their knives, and begin. They rip open the bundles and there is an adult body in each; a man and a woman, trussed up like chickens. They untie them, but fasten them by their necks to a rock. And then they start. They simply turn the bodies on their fronts and hack them up. They throw the bones to the three men who are sitting, waiting, and they pound them up. They put the internal organs into a sack and smash the skulls by dropping rocks on to them. The woman’s hair, still braided with ribbons, flutters away and is caught and hung on a bush, where there are already several others. The priest chants and drums the whole time.

When the men are done, they all come back up to us, except for one who stays behind and shouts to the vultures which are sweeping in, perching untidily in the crags and ridges above. The birds won’t come down until they are absolutely certain it is safe. Other people begin to arrive and stand beside us now. They are the relatives and they have come to see the vultures arrive – the quicker the birds arrive, the greater the honour. It’s impossible to tell what these people are feeling, and I’m not going to stare at them. Their attention is focused on the birds.

A couple of birds swoop down and the man throws the flesh. More and more birds, including eagles, arrive and the rock is a moving mass of brown feathers. The vultures are easily spooked. The eagles take longer to come, but once they do, they don’t scare easily. When they show signs of losing interest, the man throws the contents of the bag at them.

And then it’s all over. The whole thing has taken about an hour. Apparently Tibetans choose this way of disposing of their dead, partly for practical reasons – there is not enough wood for burning, and you can’t dig graves on the side of these mountains. But they also feel that death is part of life, and that other creatures must benefit. At least, that’s how I understand it. But I don’t know what it takes for a person to rip a body to shreds and feed it to vultures. I do get the distinct impression that all the guys involved, including the priest in the shades, are a bit crazed.

We walk down the mountain in complete silence. It is a beautiful day.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


23 thoughts on “China 29: Sky burial

  1. Really did not expect that! I don’t know what expected, but it didn’t involve knives, or ingestion. I am considerably enlightened.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | March 19, 2015, 11:29 am
  2. It sounds much better than it is. I’m not sure any of the options are very good but…It reminds me of the scene in Apocalypse Now where they sacrifice the buffalo, but of course worse…Thank goodness they didn’t allow cameras. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by olganm | March 15, 2015, 4:07 pm
  3. Oh my. I got nothin’. I think crazed is the right word, but I suppose it serves a better purpose than feeding the worms.
    That’s truly “fowl”… I kill me. (But I’m to be cremated, understand?)

    Posted by naptimethoughts | March 15, 2015, 3:15 pm
    • I dunno – are vultures better than worms? I’ve never been very happy about any of the choices. What happens if you’re not really dead and you wake up in the middle?

      Posted by elainecanham | March 15, 2015, 3:29 pm
  4. I expect they would think of our methods of burial as odd–either cover in dirt until something disturbs the coffin, or send the body through intense fire. At least their way, as said, feeds wildlife.

    Posted by Vivra Beene | March 15, 2015, 3:05 am
  5. From what I’ve understood about Native American Sky Burials the body is placed high on a wooden scaffold of sorts and the birds and natural elements consume the remains over time. I think I wold prefer that over a Tibetan ceremony~

    Posted by Girl in the World | March 14, 2015, 7:29 pm
  6. Wow. Just wow. That was both interesting and crazy. But when I think of all the space we waste with cemeteries …. Well….. Yeah…. Sky burials they call it aye…. Interesting…

    Posted by 5cheekymonkeys | March 14, 2015, 3:31 pm
    • It is utterly practical, but it was appalling. Imagine how much worse it would be if it were your auntie…I don’t think I could stomach seeing my rellies treated like that, but it might be better than being buried. Dunno. I suppose I’m glad I saw it, although it haunted me for ages.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 14, 2015, 6:27 pm
    • I could imagine it haunted you… I suppose it’s different when you have seen it for sure… The concept still intrigues me, but yes don’t know how I’d feel if it was a rellie….

      Posted by 5cheekymonkeys | March 15, 2015, 5:41 am
  7. Practical I understand, but it’s so brutal: body parts and fluids. Messy. Didn’t you all feel a bit crazed yours elves afterwards. Too early in the morning for gin, and I don’t even drink the stuff, but I’d be looking for something to blur the pictures in my head. Were you able to push the images back?

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 14, 2015, 2:15 pm
    • I think we just made crap jokes like, so that’s the end of the matinee performance, or I don’t think we’ll stay for the barbie and got on with the next thing. I was actually dreading posting this but it doesn’t seem so bad now.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 14, 2015, 2:19 pm
    • I stopped reading for a moment at the first crucial moment and looked away to brace myself. Heck, I don’t even like watching birds of prey or lions and tigers hunt for their dinner on television.

      Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 14, 2015, 3:20 pm
    • I don’t mind watching them hunting …but I always hope the zebra, or whatever will get away; which is silly, I suppose, because they’ve got to eat.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 14, 2015, 6:29 pm
    • Sigh. It’s a jungle out there! o_O

      Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | March 15, 2015, 12:54 am
  8. Whenever I think of Tibet and the Dalai Lama I am always imagining a people full of peace and serenity. Naïve I must be, and this piece makes me ask myself what the attitude of the Tibetans and the invasion of their land even after all this time. I’ve only seen things like “Seven Days in Tibet” so my real grasp of events is pretty limited,

    Posted by Peter Wells aka Countingducks | March 14, 2015, 1:05 pm
    • The Tibetans hate being occupied. There were demonstrations a couple of years ago where some monks set themselves on fire. I could see that the Chinese thought they were bringing good stuff, like sanitation and clean water and growing proper crops, and bringing transportation, but the Tibetans didn’t want it – certainly not with the price tag they had to pay. It was all very sad at times.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 14, 2015, 2:25 pm
  9. Wow! Speak about culture shock. Witnessing such a “ceremony” would have definitely been unnerving but the idea behind it makes sense, assimilating the body back into nature that way.

    Posted by lbwoodgate | March 14, 2015, 10:35 am
    • Yes, I didn’t really bargain on how shocking it was going to be. After all, sky burial is quite a beguiling term, isn’t it? But the Buddhists, certainly the Tibetan ones are nothing if not practical.

      Posted by elainecanham | March 14, 2015, 10:43 am

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