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Death in Tibetan culture (Part 2: What are the funeral ceremonies in Tibet?)

This article is the second part of our series about “Death in Tibetan culture”. If you have not read the first part, we invite you to read it (click here to read it).

In Tibet, the most common funeral ceremony is the sacrifice of one’s body to vultures. This ceremony is called a “sky-funeral” in English. In Tibetan, it is called “Cha Tor” (བྱ་གཏོར།), meaning “Destroyed by birds” or “Scattered by birds”. It may sound horrifying if one is unaware of the reasons behind this tradition.

In reality, this custom is the result of two very important Buddhist teachings. The first, and most important of which, is the teaching of compassion. The second one, which we introduced in our previous article about death (click here to read it), is the concept of impermanence.

Vultures flying in circle above a skyburial site

What does a skyfuneral look like?

The deceased’s body is brought to a place called “sky-burial rock”. It is called “Thurdhre” (དུར་ཁྲོད།) in Tibetan. There are located outdoor in the mountains, often close to monasteries. They are usually composed of a simple long flat rock.

There, a person is in charge of the ceremony. It might be a monk called Tokden (རྟོགས་ལྡན།)  or a lay man called “Tomden” (སྟོབས་ལྡན།). Sometimes, this person can be one of the deceased’s relatives.

This person will cut the corpse in pieces and scatter them in the sky-burial location. Then the vultures start eating the pieces of the corpse. The brain will be kept separately, to be mixed with barley flour (“Tsampa” རྩམ་པ།) and then given to the birds at the very end of the ceremony. After the vultures have finished eating, the remaining bones are crushed, mixed with barley flour and similarly offered.

Non-Tibetans are usually not welcomed to attend the ceremony. Indeed, many of them take pictures (to later upload them on the Internet) and behave in a very disrespectful way, not understanding how sacred, spiritual, and intimate this ceremony is.

Why is this tradition a result of the Buddhist teaching of compassion?

One of the core tenets of Tibetan Buddhism is compassion. We briefly touched upon it in our previous article about teahouses when talking about charity to poor people.

One sub-division of compassion is considered to be generosity. Buddhism describes various forms of generosity. One of them is the gift of one’s own body.

The Buddha Shakyamuni who lived in the 5th century before our era is said to have lived many virtuous lives before being born as the Prince Siddhartha in the 5th century. During one of his previous lives, the Buddha was a human who encountered a starving mother tigress about to eat her own babies. The Buddha decided that his body could save the tigress’ children. He then offered his body for the tigress to eat.

This story inspired Tibetans to offer their bodies to animals and birds after their death. Indeed, Tibetans consider that their body has stopped being useful to them whereas they can make it useful one last time by donating it to feed animals. This offering is considered as one last act of generosity before starting the next life. Such an act also contributes to protecting nature and the environment in general.

Mural painting on a rock of the Buddha Shakyamuni

Why is this ritual a result of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence?

Impermanence means, simply that nothing is permanent. Everything we know as certain or permanent will eventually change. For example, our fortunate life may suddenly take a turn for the worse. In particular, our body will not stay as we know it. We will eventually get sick, grow old and die. Buddhism teaches us that our ignorance about the reality of impermanence is one of the main source of our sufferings. Indeed, we forget about the truth of impermanence and get attached to phenomenon as we know them. Then we suffer enormously when facing impermanent phenomena, such as when losing loved ones or when preparing to die ourselves.

Buddhist teachings encourage us to fully integrate the truth of impermanence and of death within ourselves, and let go of our attachment.

When our loved ones are cut in pieces and offered to vultures, the reality of impermanence is that much more strongly felt. This ceremony is considered as spiritual training for the deceased’s family and loved ones. As family or loved ones of the dearly departed, we will meditate on the fact that our loved one’s life is impermanent as well as their body. Only to realize that all humans will meet the same fate, and thus finally we will let go of our attachment to others and to ourselves.

In some cases, monks who live in the nearby monasteries will attend the sky-burial ceremonies to reinforce the reality of impermanence and of attachment. They will meditate on the decrepitude of the bodies in order to learn to let go of their attachment. This experience is considered to be useful for their spiritual training.

Samye Monastery

Why offering to vultures in particular?

Vultures seem to occupy a special place in Tibetan culture.

First, they are considered as kings of the sky and are said to be very pure.

Some Tibetans say that it’s impossible to see the corpse of a dead vulture, except of course if it’s killed. This adds to the mystical dimension of the vultures.

Finally, birds have a symbolic importance in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that three poisons prevent you from advancing on the path to enlightenment: attachment, anger and ignorance. Each of those poisons is represented by an animal. Attachment is represented by a bird, anger by a snake and ignorance by a pig. As we said earlier, sky-burial is considered to be a form of mental training to fight against attachment and embrace the tenet of impermanence. It is interesting to see that the animals that accompany humans during this teaching about attachment and impermanence are actually birds, symbol of the poison of attachment, right?

In the smallest circle, a bird, a snake and a pig

Are there other types of funeral ceremonies in Tibet customs?

Sky-burial is the most common ceremony in today’s Tibet. However, some people are not allowed to benefit from the sky-burial ceremony: those who died because of certain types of contagious disease and those who have died by knife wound or gunshot. In these cases, the practice is considered as being harmful to the vultures, instead the deceased are buried.

Another tradition is to cut the body in pieces and throw them into the water, so it can benefit the fish and other animals living in the water or nearby. The mindset is the same as when offering the corpse to vultures.

A particular tradition exists in some lower altitude areas of Tibet where there are mostly forests. The tradition is to hang the body on a tree in the forest. However this practice is rare and followed only in certain areas.

Some people do practice burial but it is very rare. It is usually not considered a good practice.

Another custom in Tibet is cremation, it is usually reserved for religious figures or sometimes highly respected lay persons.

Some high religious figures and respected lay persons benefit from another special treatment. Their body is kept with salt and charcoal and put in a religious edifice called a “Stupa” in sanskrit or “Cheten” in Tibetan (མཆོད་རྟེན།). Sometimes the body is kept as such without an edifice in the monastery.

What do you personally think of this custom of sky-burial? Scary? Cruel to the loved ones? Compassionate to the wild?

Forest in Kongpo region where water burial still exists

Many thanks to our dear Thomas Pan who proofread this article!


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