Link #38: Tibetans Leave Their Dead to Nature and Animals


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Link #38: Tibetans Leave Their Dead to Nature and Animals.

Sky burial
Sky burial. PD image

In our last article, we showed you that westerners might think Tibetans to be very strange. We did this by explaining how the Tibetans stick out their tongues at a person they respect.

This isn’t the only strange Tibetan custom. You, no doubt, know of the act of burying the dead. Most of the world deals with the dead in this manner. Another common method that you must’ve heard about is cremation where the body of the dead individual is burned on a pyre. This is also fairly common.

What isn’t very common is leaving the dead person’s body to decompose in the open air or even be eaten by wild animals and birds. However, this is exactly how Tibetans deal with their dead!

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How Do Tibetans Leave Their Dead to Nature and Animals?

Sky burial site, Yerpa Valley, Tibet by John Hill GFDL

The process of leaving the dead in the open air to decompose and be eaten by wild animals and birds is commonly known as sky burial. The actual process of sky burial can be simplified into leaving the dead individual’s body on a mountain top.

There, the body is exposed to natural elements and wild animals such as scavengers and specifically birds. It isn’t only the Tibetans who practice this method of burial.

Sky burial is also seen in many regions of China. Sky burial is a type of excarnation, i.e., the act of de-fleshing a dead body. In fact, sky burial is the natural side of excarnation.

Why Do Tibetans Practice Sky Burial?

Drigung Monastery, Tibetan monastery famous for performing sky burials. Photographed by Mark Evans in November 2005 using a Nikon Coolpix 5200 GFDL

The most rational question you can ask at this point is why Tibetans practice sky burial. In order to understand why they do it, you have to know two things about Tibetans.

The first is that the Tibetans, generally, are very environment conscious. Historically, they’ve always tried to live in harmony with nature. Effectively, when they practice sky burial, they are basically giving back to nature. The body, as is obvious, is seen as a source of nutrition for animals, birds and other organisms in the world.

The region that the Tibetans live in is very rocky and mountainous. In such regions, it is almost impossible to dig a grave. In fact, the soil is only a few centimetres thick which will make digging a grave highly impractical.

Moreover, the Tibetan region is also without a lot of fuel and timber, so they can’t use the other practice of cremation either. As a result, sky burial is the most logical solution for them.

The Neanderthals Had Their Own Version of Excarnation

An artist’s impression of Neanderthal life. By Randii Oliver – PD image

One of the most interesting elements of excarnation is that even the Neanderthals had their own version of excarnation. Notably, the Neanderthal method of dealing with the dead wasn’t all that different from the one the Tibetans use.

The Neanderthals were known to leave their dead inside deep caves. This can be seen as a crude form of ground burial or sky burial. It shows how both the processes of dealing with the dead could have originated from the same source.

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