Wow: the Most Responsible Burial on Earth. {Extremely NSFW}

Via on Sep 28, 2012

Way to Go: the Sky, your Cemetery.

Wow, wow, wowowowowo: it’s Tibetan Sky Burial. Talk about powerful.

Via Reddit/Imgur: “Tibetan sky burial. the first time i saw this was in kundun, and i’ve always thought it was beautiful. (x-post r/wtf, for some reason)

For more green burial.

A comment, via Reddit:

I’m glad that other people feel this way. :) It’s in /r/wtf because Western societies have developed a whole system around condensing and compartmentalizing death. You’re not supposed to see the body in a natural state. Someone takes it away, prepares it to mock life, and then it goes through different rituals before it’s either burned or buried. There’s an illusion present there that death is somehow cleaner that way. People would probably be just as wtf if they were more aware of what’s actually involved in Western cremation embalming and cremation.

With the sky burial, the participants are very up close with the body – cutting it to prepare it for consumption and then grinding the bones for further consumption. Even just the idea of an animal eating the body is too disturbing for some. Personally, as someone who’s seen a lot of dead things, I’d take an animal over bugs and chemicals. That’s just me. :)

There are a lot of practicalities to Tibetan burial practices. The environment is cold and the earth hard, making decomposition a very slow process and burial impractical. Sky burials also aren’t the only form of burial: http://www.tripbus.com/TibetIntroduction/9444029.html

Finding a Western equivalent might be difficult, but I actually know an avenue. If you want to donate your body to science and be consumed by animals, Texas State University has vultures at their forensic anthropology center: http://www.txstate.edu/anthropology/facts/donations.html

I personally observed American Black vultures consume donated individuals as part of the decomposition process while researching there (with the permission of the donors and/or their families of course). If you do donate, be very specific that you want your body to be used for animal research, as the norm is to cage the bodies so that animals do not have access. It may not be as spiritual as the burial pictured, but it does contribute towards education. After decomposition, bones are interred into the university skeletal collection, contributing to data collection for scientific studies and teaching students about human anatomy in perpetuity.

About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom

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33 Responses to “Wow: the Most Responsible Burial on Earth. {Extremely NSFW}”

  1. C. Anna Fisher says:

    This culture we are currently in has a long way to go or better said reach towards to understand the practicality of suctoh a practice. We are very invested and confused about death and what it means and as well as afterlife, and how to view the discarding remains of our body. I have heard of this practice for many years, but never seen photos. Quite striking! As a mature woman, I think about how to most easily take care of the business of my bodily remains for my family. I often have thought of being wrapped in silk then a canvas bag and buried on BLM land. My children aren't up for this currently. I do not feel a sentiment towards my dead carcass after I release it after years of meditation. It seems it is natural to recycle it which it does inadvertently by burial. The popular cremation is highly impractical in this culture – it requires enormous amounts of fuel to burn our chemically polluted bodies as opposed to the traditional crematories in India. Burial at sea seems appealing as well – with the exception of the pollution piece. With 7 billion on the planet we need to figure out something soon that does not have a negative carbon foot print. This would be a great discussion for all communities to become involved and share ideas.

  2. steve says:

    finding that hatchet friend would be the hard part i'd think.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Waylon….sky burial has nothing to do with "Green", sustainability, or carbon footprints. The "efficiency" of sky burial never was an issue for practice. I think you know this. Must we always force our concepts on practices we do not understand to "make them our own"? Similar to the borrowing of Buddhism in the west to support new age concepts without knowing Buddhism. We add more and more to the heap.

    • elephantjournal says:

      Hunh. Strange to take exception, seems you're picking a fight with me on this.

      Which is fine. I would have replied earlier if I'd seen your comment…seems folks like to upvote criticism, no matter the merit.

      There's nothing "new agey" about "green"—which is simply taking responsibility for one's actions and their effect on others. You know, karma. Knot of eternity represents the circle of life, the interdependence of all actions and thinks.

      Respect for the circle of life and sustainability, or living in harmony, is inherent to Buddhism. I think you know this.

      • Dave says:

        But I think what the person you're replying to was saying (and I didn't upvote them, btw) is that labeling it a 'green' burial is misrepresenting the point of this ritual for this culture, and changing the emphasis to what the author wants the emphasis to be. I can agree with that aspect of Padma Kadag's comments, if not the overall tone. From what I can tell, this ritual is more about acceptance of death as a normal cycle of existence.

      • Padma Kadag says:

        No fight intended. I disagree that sustainability is inherent in Buddhism…rather the goal in buddhism is to "sustain" nothing. I did not correlate new agey with being green. I am not taking exception with your article because I "think you know" the intent of sky burial. I understand why you wrote it. It must be annoying to have people comment on articles you have written when your only trying to inform us and you have to get something online. My comment here is a casual commentary on just what I said. But….the interesting thing about buddhism is the "bi-product". You do not practice sky burial for green reasons….yet the "unintended" bi-product could be interpreted as being "green" in method. It would be a shame if we were to celebrate this uncommon funeral for it's unintended advantages misconstruing the oringinal intent. When the vultures do not show up to devour a corpse it is a serious problem for the family. A Yogi, a real yogi, who has the ability to "shake the nest" or call in the vultures is required.

    • Frances Anne says:

      I am in complete agreement with your comments. I apologize, in my opinion, for the informal language style, stance, attitude, ethnocentrism, and ignorance (as defined as "lacking understanding and knowledge," NOT stupidity, in the response). Cross-cultural understanding, acquainting ourselves well enough to be able to translate languages, concepts, traditions and worldviews without transposing our own cultural meanings upon them is a great challenge, despite familiarity with another culture. This was the 19th and 20th century anthropologists' nightmare, as their extensive literature and research bears witness to this. And globalization – cell phones, Internet, international politics, young, affluent travelers doing "a year abroad" and returning with bangles, tall tales, and upstarting entrepreneurial businesses from new-born experiences – among other variables, led to the gradual demise of socio-cultural anthropology as a scholarly discipline, as entrenched as they often were with a colonizer's needs and funding. Evidence: been there and done that, from both sides, as scholar and world traveller. However, I must commend the web site for the sharing of the photos and the open commentary – that is exactly what opens the playing field up for further conversation and the open exchange of ideas. :)

  4. Lynda says:

    Very intense, to say the least, but also beautiful, in a way.

  5. Brett Young says:

    This is very intense photography. I'm not sure we as Westerners can adequately speak to this type of cultural practice. I found myself intrigued but also disturbed. That the body was being eaten by vultures didn't disturb me. What did bother me as that It looks as if the person whose corpse is being eaten has a noose around his neck. He also looks very young. Sky burial or not, what is the story behind this death and this photography? Are these photos that should be better vetted before they are disseminated as a laudable practice?

  6. Jenn says:

    I do not mean any harm by this comment, but on behalf of Tibetan friends, I must say that this is rather offensive. On one hand, showing the intimate grievance of a death and the body of a passed loved one on the internet is not respectful or graceful in any sense. Imagine finding a picture of your deceased son in an open casket on the internet? Additionally, the sky burial is a coveted ritual in which privacy is regarded as paramount. It is counter-culture, and therefore disrespectful, to publicize the act. Here is an excerpt from a field researcher on the burial: "for these days not one visitor in five hundred is privileged to witness the ceremony I'm about to see". More importantly, read her note at the bottom: http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~pamlogan/skybury.htm

    • elephantjournal says:

      There's similar issues with many of the Buddhist teachings. My community's teacher regarded much of this as "self-secret"—there is nothing fragile about the practice of respect and responsibility, and those who can not understand will not understand. For Buddhism's underlying mission: prajna, or compassion, or being of benefit to be fulfilled, there is a certain amount of openness that is required.

      My experience of Buddhist funerals, while nothing like the above, was that they were simultaneously a thing of respect and sadness, and one of joy, even celebration. There was nothing fragile about them that could be broken by the prying eyes and questions of a boy.

      • Jenn says:

        Tibetan Buddhism thrives currently within a specific social/cultural context. That is why you have not seen a funeral "nothing like the above", because it is unique in itself. It possibly embodies similar elements and celebrated underpinnings, but also exists with its own values and tradition. Part of this includes sacredness. This is not about fragility or breaking the experienced moment with "prying eyes". This is about considering the ethical implications of countering something that asks to be held sacred within a community. On the occasion that documentation is permitted, the ceremony is normally carefully captured to avoid the actual corpse out of respect. Photos posted on a blog without a representative voice would likely be considered inappropriate.

  7. Dave says:

    Unless this individual signed off on having their corpse and the ensuing events posted on this website (or any other), it really isn't appropriate or ethical to be exploiting such a private moment for blog views. But it really doesn't surprise me that this site would act thoughtlessly while disingenuously presenting itself as thoughtful. And I too would like to know if these pictures are representing what you are claiming they do. It seems perfectly possible that this could be a nefarious event being photographed (although it could be legitimate, as well… I'd just like to see proof since it's such sensitive and bizarre stuff to post).

    Also, I don't see why displaying another culture's customs always seems to be accompanied by a bashing of "Western" culture. For some reasons Western culture is exempt from cultural respect and understanding, which doesn't make any sense.

    • elephantjournal says:

      Any bashing of Western culture was done via that comment, which comes from Reddit (which is linked). Western culture, historically, has had little involvement with the poisons and plastic that's involved in present day burial. I'm a Westerner, and love my culture.

      As for any exploitation, 1) this rite was already featured in a major motion picture, Kundun, which was made up of a Tibetan cast, a nephew of the Dalai Lama, and advised on by the Dalai Lama himself. 2) this isn't about culture: this is about respect for the circle of life, which in Buddhism we are taught is a fundamentally okay, ordinary thing.

      • Dave says:

        I suppose I replied to the bashing part here because it was brought to my attention here, and it was posted without commentary, which seems to imply that the person who posted it felt that it needed to be read (and likely agreed with it). But if not, then I misunderstood.

        But one thing I still strongly question is whether this individual was okay with their body being posted all over the internet. Just because death is seen as a "normal" event doesn't mean it isn't an intimate event. I consider going to the bathroom to be normal, but I don't want pictures of myself doing it posted all over and commented on. And just because the people carrying it out allowed pictures doesn't necessarily mean the person who died would have wanted that. Anyway, that was my main concern.

  8. Yany says:

    I don't understand why our western culture should always be criticized and put down because others do things differently. There's absolutely nothing wrong in the way we perceive death, our way to internally process the death of a loved one is no less than their way to do it. Stop this type of article sabotaging our culture. I find this highly offensive and disgusting. After looking at these pictures, I can assure you that to observe a loved one be devoured by animals is definitely something that I don't want to adopt in anyway from any "superior" culture.

    • elephantjournal says:

      Wow. I agree, there's no need for bashing anyone. As for the rest, seems like you're getting into bashing back. Chill, man.

  9. seren says:

    I agree with the person who points out that this kind of burial is more landscape, buddhist, motivate than something 'eco – friendly' – perhaps if we (UK) had a lack of soft ground or vultures we might have evolved a similar rite. I also don't feel that it's appropriate to re-post (I see that they come up under 'sky burial' in a google image search) photos of this private moment – unless you have consent. I feel 'The Human Planet' handled this sensitively (you can see the footage on You Tube) – they show no footage of the body and, significantly, too, this film shows that the family do not stay to watch their loved ones body being eaten. I respect this rite, and can understand the spirituality behind it, but I do wonder how this person's family would feel to see these images. Whilst this article does inspire me to think about alternative funeral rites and does open up that wider debate I do sometimes find 'Elephant' a bit like a tabloid, articles like this, barely an article, and articles, for example, (and there seem to be many!) about yoga and sex!!

  10. Edward Staskus says:

    I do not see this as inherently better or worse than any other culture’s way of dealing with corpses, but I do see it as impractical for most of the world. There are too many people in cities like NYC, Beijing, and Tehran to allow the breeding of tens of thousands of vultures for the purpose of eating the remains of the recently deceased.I know I would not want flocks of vultures flying overhead, looking for the dead.

    • elephantjournal says:

      Vultures aren't necessary—giving corpses to the earth and the worms, or the sea, works just as well. No need for vulture farms!

      I swear, the comments on this post are a bit nutters—death has a way, I guess, of illiciting fear and emotion.

    • Padma Kadag says:

      Actually here is another "a bit nutters" fact. The vulture populations in India are quickly dwindling due to poisons and habitat development so….the carrion of livestock is piling up and creating a health concern.

  11. elephantjournal says:

    Melchiades Lozano who could have thought that something so grizzly and gruesome as cutting and carving up up a human body like meat at the butcher shop could be so beautiful, eh?
    11 hours ago · Like · 1
    Jennifer Wade Powerful to say the least.
    11 hours ago · Like
    Zango S. Djeia Wow… that's intense.
    11 hours ago · Like
    Lynno Oz that was powerful
    11 hours ago · Like
    Genny Trickett wu wei
    11 hours ago via mobile · Like
    Bruce Leong Amazing.
    10 hours ago via mobile · Like
    Amani Denholm whoa, that is gnarly!!! and powerful
    10 hours ago · Edited · Like
    Tiffany Helton wow. very intense. right back into the circle of life.
    9 hours ago · Unlike · 1
    Steve Nottingham Crazy
    7 hours ago · Like
    Katherine Glitter Sanz woah. chills.
    7 hours ago · Like
    Terry Lindsay hhmmm…
    4 hours ago · Like
    Jason Jung Whoa. We don't see that, everyday.
    about an hour ago · Like

  12. Loran says:

    I am a practicing Buddhist. It is my understanding that sky burials are in part a matter of practicality in Tibet. Poverty and a rocky landscape present obstacles to burial in a coffin in the ground. I also believe that sky burial is a reminder of our own mortality and impermanence.

    I was, however, intrigued by the pictures. I have never seen such graphic and detailed sky burial pictures before now. At the same time I had to wonder about the person who had died and whether or not permission had been granted.

    Most certainly death provokes emotion.

  13. Jenifer says:

    I think it's norway or sweden actually has a composting facility where you can have your body sent. And there's an australian company that does something with water that somehow is free of toxins to the environment (unlike cremation which creates particular matter/smoke), but I can't remember what that one is called.

    As I'll likely die not in tibet, not in sweden or norway, and not in australia (though perhaps I'll be able ot make arrangements?), I'll have to just go with cremation. Bit of a bummer, really. I'd prefer sky burial or composting, personally.

    And yes, I did study sky burial origins and rituals and what nots when I first heard of this a bazillion years ago as a teenager (that was in the 90s), and thought it was a beautiful practice.

    Anyway, composting would definitely be my absolute preference. For ecological and other logical reasons. I mean, it's just logical to be compost. It's what we're made of or something.

  14. chris says:

    I have never seen anything like these photos before and personally found it intriguing. Initially I was a little uneasy to continue hitting the next photo button as they became more graphic but my overall impression is gratitude. I'm glad that they that they were published so that I can question the best practice for the my return to the earth and that of my loved ones. I have long been drawn to the stories I heard as a child of Native American funeral pyre burials. For the past 20 years I have held the image of myself atop a 6 ft wooden structure and set afire. I have talked to my family and children about my wishes and since they are young we laugh about who can accomplish this. My thought has been that I will build the structure and hopefully shortly before my passing climb atop my final bed. Since I live in the country in a rural area no innocent bystanders will be harmed by accidental viewing. I was laughing at the post above that said finding the "hatchet friend" would be the hardest part. My feeling is that my own idea of my death wishes gives me comfort. If sky burial resonates with some Westerners or anyone other than the Tibetan people who partake in this practice it could be due to the Buddhist view of reincarnation couldn't it? I didn't respond to this on an academic level but found it an interesting wholesome practical practice that I viewed mindfully with respect. I feel as an American, a tremendous amount of fear of death in our society. It has been a intention of mine to get to the point where I feel comfortable with that eventuality. These kind of pictures create that internal dialogue. thanks.

  15. andeejo says:

    Interesting that this was reposted on fb today, as I just read an article (can't find the link!) about 'green burials' yesterday… and as someone who benefited enormously from kind and foresighted people that donated their bodies so I could learn in medical school… i think the salient point here is more that we all need to think seriously about death long before it happens, to have the conversations and understand the options… and make the best decisions for our spiritual beliefs but also for the environment… there are many many 'green' options in the US now that don't involve formaldehyde or common mortuary practices (that personally i do not want done to my body even when i'm out of it)– so it's great to see things like this to encourage conversation and thoughtful planning about something that is entirely inevitable and strangely avoided in most of western culture :)

  16. Lucy says:

    We need articles like this for balance. In some Western countries, the fear and taboo of death that landed round about the 1950s has led to a disconnection and bizarre contradiction. 100 years ago we would wash and lay out own own loved ones. Many of us can't contemplate doing that, yet we'll watch films where people are tortured and hacked to death. The internet is full of real-life car crash photos, but yet when our own loved ones die, some of us can't even look at their nicely-presented body to say goodbye. While embalming may not be environmentally friendly (although, it's getting better, here in Europe the chemicals we use are being forced by law to evolve and be less toxic) if it means a family can take their loved one home to lay before the funeral without fear of what the central heating will do, and most importantly, they can participate in the death, then there is some merit. Some cultures and religons see importance in keeping the body whole after death, some don't, but either way, we need to talk about it more.

  17. Urooj says:

    Insane!

  18. There are different types of keepsake urns available in the market, but all of them solve the same purpose, as they are used for saving the memorable belongings of a deceased person as a mark of love and reverence towards him.

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