Stephen Bailey
Travelling to the next world: how Tibetans deal with death
Travelling to the next world: how Tibetans deal with death
Stephen Bailey

When I was in Tibet, I had the privilege to witness a sky burial.

Now, almost 15 years later, that traditional funeral ceremony has been often on my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality recently. Both my parents are in ill health, and that obviously makes me quite sad.

And like you, I’ve been to funerals. I’ve seen how sad they are.

But in the sky burial, the Tibetan people found peace with the transition of their loved ones. That was one of the most peaceful transitions into another world I have witnessed. The solitude, the serenity, the equanimity of that experience was unparalleled.

A Buddhist ritual in an oppressed country

It took place in a small town called Litang.

Litang is officially in China, but the people there speak Tibetan. They told me Litang was in Tibet only 20 years ago, but every year China moved the border a mile or two inland, so now the town is officially in China.

Litang is about 4,000 metres above sea level. It took me two days to reach it by bus from Chengdu, which is the nearest main city in China.

I’d heard about the practice of sky burial and was interested in it.

In the local Buddhist culture, they believe that your soul will carry on, and that the sooner your body is absorbed by nature, the quicker your soul will ascend. So their funeral rites are all about your physical body turning back into nature.

But the sky burial is not afforded to everybody in the population. The bodies of most deceased people in Litang go in the river, where they are slowly taken by the fish, by the forces of nature high in the Himalayas.

The sky burial is a rarer, more revered way of having a funeral ­— the loftiest way to go out, so to speak.

So I was very fortunate to be there precisely at the time it took place.

It was strangely peaceful

The sky burial I witnessed took place on a mountainside above the town.

The body was carried out to an open rock face. All the onlookers — family and friends, about 40 people — were 50 metres away. There was chanting. There was someone I’ll call a holy man, as I don’t know the real name for his profession, who presided over it.

They told me this man was the cleanest person in their town. He’d inherited the role from his uncle. He could not marry or have children — he had to be completely pure.

Now he was in front of the body, and with a huge knife he started very cleanly cutting it into pieces.

As this was happening, vultures were gathering on the ridge a hundred metres away. One vulture, two, three, and soon there were around 15 vultures on the ridge. They waited patiently.

The holy man was cutting up the body. There was no sadness, no grief, at that sky burial. And as the holy man walked away, the vultures came in and started eating the body.

The strange thing is that I felt a sense of peace. I wasn’t repelled, though the thought of 15 vultures picking away a human body is repelling in other circumstances.

A vulture was flying off and I could see the intestines coming from his mouth and dragging on the floor. Those birds came very close to us and I could see them picking and scrapping over different pieces, picking away a finger or a bone, or human organs.

It is quite a repelling thought. But on that occasion, I found peace when witnessing the ceremony. Everything was calm. Everyone watched in equanimity, in complete serenity, that body being taken apart by vultures.

I was watching the body of a stranger being taken apart, whereas to the other people it was the body of a friend, of a family member. But they were so peaceful that I could really feel their belief that this was great — this quick passing from one life to another was truly taking place for them.

The scene was steeped in reverence, and I felt privileged to be part of it.

I think I felt a sense of peace also because every 10 or 15 minutes, the master of ceremonies would walk back to the body and cut open some more to make it more accessible. And the vultures would very peacefully move away — they would not in any way interfere with the man, but would let him do it and then they would come back and take more of the body.

It’s amazing how quickly it went.

Within 60 to 90 minutes, there was almost nothing left. There were only a few scattered remains ­— the vultures had taken the pieces of the body away and hid it in different places, and probably fed young vultures as well. There were only a couple of pieces of bone remaining.

It was similar to what I’ve witnessed at a Hindu funeral on the Varanasi River — bones are pretty much the only thing left after the ceremonial burning of the body on the holy ghat.

A different way of dealing with death

That sky burial was a remarkable ceremony to witness. I feel privileged that I was there in Tibet when it took place.

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling that overbearing presence of mortality, knowing that my parents are in ill health and knowing what’s going to happen. When I think about that, I think of the sadness that soon they’re not going to be here.

But then my thoughts are made lighter by remembering that sky burial.

I think of it, and of how Buddhist culture deals with death in a very different way from us — a more peaceful way, and a way that is now giving me a lot of strength.

My thoughts extend to the people of Tibet and what’s happening to them. It was eye-opening to be in China and hear Tibetan people telling me about their experiences and their oppression.

But even more striking was to experience their peace, serenity and otherworldly beliefs that are mindblowing — and that can be very helpful to anyone in their trying times.

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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