The Funerary Customs of Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Deep within the aged pages of the Bardo Thödol or “Book of the Dead”, there lies a guide to traditional Tibetan funerary practices. When death occurs among the Tibetan people, what happens to your body largely depends on your religious status. The vast majority of Tibetans will receive a type of sky burial known as Jhator, which literally translates to “Feeding the Birds”. Be forewarned, this is not a metaphor! The body is taken up to the sky burial site in the mountains, where it is offered up to nature. While the process may seem deeply spiritual, this style of burial was born out of distinctly practical concerns. The rocky and often frozen ground in Tibet is much too tough for grave-digging, and firewood is a scare commodity that cannot be spared for cremation.

During the funeral ceremony, the body is covered with a white cloth and placed face down on the hillside. The family and friends of the deceased gather around as a monk or master of ceremonies, known in Tibetan as a tomden, removes the cloth and anchors the body to the ground while chanting sutras and waving incense. If the deceased was a monk, a symbol of religious significance will be carved into his back. Taking a saw-like knife, the tomden is then granted the unenviable task of removing the organs and cutting the body into small pieces. By this point, large vultures will have begun staring hungrily from hilltops near the sky burial site or hovering impatiently in circles above the body.

Once the body has been prepared, the tomden steps back and allows the vultures to devour it. Crows and hawks wait on the outskirts, vying for their chance to pluck the leftover morsels from the bones. When the vultures have eaten their fill and the bones have been picked clean, the tomden smashes the bones with a mallet and mixes the crushed remains with barley flour, tea, sugar, and yak butter. This marrow-rich slurry is then cast onto the ground for the birds to feed on. If the corpse is entirely consumed by vultures, this is a sign that the person died without sin and their soul has safely gone to heaven. Should any parts of the corpse remain, they must be gathered and cremated while monks chant soul-redeeming sutras[1]. Fascinating as this practice is, it is important to note that tourists must not watch the sky burial without an invitation from the deceased’s family and photographing or videoing the ceremony is strictly forbidden.

When it comes to death, not everyone is subject to such fowl treatment! In the remote mountains of southern Tibet, there are simply not enough vultures to make sky burial a viable option, so the locals practice a traditional water burial as an alternative. The body is prepared in much the same way, but is cast into the water and fed to fish instead. As a mark of respect, people living in these regions will never eat any fish from the rivers or lakes used for water burial. In the heavily forested regions of southeastern Tibet, the abundance of trees means that locals have the luxury of cremation as the most popular funeral option.

Throughout Tibet, eminent monks will also be honoured by being cremated, with their ashes either being stored in a stupa[2] or buried in a coffin. Unlike in the Western world, where cremation takes place at special crematoriums, Tibetans simply pile firewood into a special crisscross pattern. The body is then “seated” within this wooden frame and, after wooden pieces have been placed over the head, oil or wine is poured onto the wood.

The four corners of the wooden frame are set ablaze while monks face the deceased and chant sutras. As they chant, the monks will also extol the virtues of the deceased and express their wish that he will be accepted into heaven safely. Once the fire has burnt out, the ashes are collected and, after three days, they are stored. From that day onwards, monks are invited to chant every seven days in a further effort to redeem the soul of the deceased. This chanting lasts for forty-nine days, after which the funeral is officially complete.

If you thought that was complex, it pales in comparison to the grand ceremony that is held when a tulku[3] or “living Buddha”, such as the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama[4], passes away. After being embalmed with spices and antiseptics, the body is wrapped in a special cloth known as “Five-Coloured Silk”. Blue represents air, white symbolises water, yellow signifies earth, green denotes nature, and red is associated with fire. Together, these five colours form the cloth of the Buddha, which can only be used on occasions of exceptional significance.

As monks chant sutras, the embalmed body is placed inside of a spirit stupa, which is then sealed. Day and night, monks will stand guard by the stupa and light butter lamps as a form of worship. There are different varieties of spirit stupa depending on the rank of the deceased, from gold and silver down to wood and mud. Only the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are granted the honour of a golden spirit stupa after they die. After all, being transformed into a fixture for religious guidance seems like a fitting end for men who have devoted their life to their faith.

[1] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[2] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[3] Tulku: A tulku is the re-incarnation of a deceased master of Tibetan Buddhism. Each time an old tulku dies, senior monks are charged with locating the young person who harbours their re-incarnated soul. The Dalai Lama is the most well-known example of a tulku.

[4] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.