Eco-friendly ways of laying the dead to rest are growing increasingly popular, and with good reason. Around ~1 million acres (404,685 hectares) of land in America have been stripped of their natural plant and wildlife composition to make way for human burials, the production of caskets for which destroys roughly 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of land annually.
More modern funerary solutions have seen bodies turned to compost or dissolved, as in aquamation, but not all green solutions are new. Humans in parts of the globe have looked to the skies (and the winged carnivores they contain) as a means of honoring and disposing of their dead in an 11,000-year-old practice known as sky burials.
What is A sky burial?
A sky burial, also known as a “celestial burial”, is a funeral practice observed by Buddhists and is actually a common way for dealing with the dead in the Himalayan region of Tibet, and is also practiced in Mongolia. It involves carrying the dead to a remote area of the mountains far away from residential homes for a private ceremony that’s believed to facilitate the passage of the soul after death.
Preparatory procedures mean that sky burial takes place a few days after the person has died. Once ready, the body is carried some considerable distance into the mountains to a celestial burial platform.
Here, “Su” smoke is burned to attract carnivorous birds like condors and vultures that usually eat carrion. A “burial master” oversees the proceedings, in which the birds will eat the body which is cut into pieces by a “body carrier”.
What remains is collected and burned and the bones are pulverized and mixed with tsampa, a Tibetan staple made of roasted flour, yak butter, and tea to form pak, which is also fed to the birds.
Why are sky burials practiced?
The climate in the region historically hasn’t lent itself well to the ground burials observed in other parts of the globe, demonstrating that sky burials have practical as well as ceremonial benefits for Tibetans. It also ties into the Tibetan pragmatism that after we die the soul is freed and the physical form is no longer needed.
That carnivorous, carrion-eating birds are brought into the equation is also a nod to the culture’s positive relationship with nature. Returning to the earth as a meal for another living creature is considered a generous and worthy way to lay the body to rest, and happens to be one that's also kind to the environment.
Sky Burials: Things to remember
While cutting up the remains of a dead person is a bleak prospect for many, offering one's body to the birds is something Buddhists in Tibet and Mongolia consider honorable, and burial masters and body carriers conduct the ceremonies with a light-hearted atmosphere. The practice is a very private one, often without the families present, that's conducted in a way that's thought to best facilitate the passage of the soul.
As such, their right to privacy must be respected, tourists should not seek out sky buials and visitors to the region should not stick around to watch if they happen to come by such a ceremony.