There was only one after-death experience offered in our small patch of Southern earth and that was to be buried in it. The first time I heard the word ‘cremation’ and asked my father what in the world it was, I could not believe that this disposal by fire actually existed. There was no crematorium in our town and with the custom of burial firmly in place, no one would ever dream of choosing this route. Of course that’s all changed now, and although I’m told the nearest crematorium is miles away, it has fast become a choice of many.
I’ve learned of another burial practice that I don’t think has a hope of catching on in the Western world, not that it should or could. For thousands of years the Tibetans have practiced sky burial. It is simply a means of disposing the deceased by leaving the remains exposed to the elements and the birds of prey, which are considered sacred to Tibetans. The practice is called jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds”. Sky burial evolved as a practical solution to the problem caused by grounds in Tibet being too hard and rocky to dig a grave and in which the scarcity of timber made it difficult to perform cremations.
To a Westerner the ritual is quite grotesque, and the risk of offending is great, so I’ll not relay the procedure in detail here. When a Tibetan person dies, monks come to the home and pray for three days. The body is left untouched and at this initial stage, the family consider it inappropriate to display grief or sadness. After this period, the body is wrapped in a white cloth and moved to the site.
The ritual is performed on a specified sky burial site, a large flat rock located on higher ground than its surrounds. Monks trained specifically for this use tools designated for the ritual. Family members are near, but usually do not witness. Should you find yourself in Tibet and happen upon a sky burial in progress you should never photograph the procedures or even stop and watch unless you’re invited. It’s considered extremely disrespectful and rude.
The government of China, which has occupied Tibet since the 1960’s, prohibited sky burials until the 1980’s. They consider the practice barbaric, but probably realized it is the most efficient, fuel saving funerary practice for the region and thus allowed the burials once again.
Four of the most remote and revered sky burial sites lie at the foot of what is known by four religions, Hinduism, Bön, Buddhism and Jainism, as the axis of the world – the majestic Mount Kailash.
Part of the Tibetan Himalayas, located in western Tibet, Mount Kailash is considered so sacred that there are no recorded attempts to climb it and even setting foot on its slopes is considered a sin. It’s claimed that any attempts to do so have resulted in death. In other words, it is off limits to climbers.
Pilgrims have made their way to Kailash for thousands of years, and in the early days they walked for months to reach the foot where they then walked the kora, the 32-mile circuit around the foot of the mountain.
The location is so remote and inhospitable that even today the journey to the foot of Kailash is only slightly easier. Every Tibetan aspires to one day walk the kora to wash away a lifetime of sins. There are pilgrims who perform prostrations around the entire mountain. It takes four weeks when they follow this demanding regime.
Along the way, in a painful climb into ever thinning air, Grachon Ngagye Dorsa is one of four sky burial places around Kailash.
Sky burial site at Mount Kailash
Here pilgrims will pause to simulate their own death. They may spill a drop of their blood, leave a tooth or strand of their hair, or tear a piece of clothing to leave on the site. They lie as if dead on the rock to be reborn to a higher life in their next rebirth.
Tibetans believe that life has completely left the body immediately after death. They consider jhator an act of generosity on the part of the deceased and treat it as important instruction on the impermanence of life.