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   Undertoad  Wednesday Apr 26 12:54 PM

4/26/2006: Vultures feast in Tibetan burial ceremony

Somewhere in this picture, hidden behind all those birds, is a dead body. It's being eaten by the birds. It's the job of that guy in back to observe and pray, and then shoo them away when they're done.

Ya gotta be kidding me. OMG yer not kidding me.

xoB sends along this WaPo image with the crack "he doesn't look like a funeral director", but friends, that's what he is. The official caption tells us that a burial master prays and drives away vultures after they finished eating the body of a dead person during a celestial burial in Qinghai, China. Celestial burial is a traditional funeral of Tibetan people.

According to this description,

Upon invitation from relatives of the dead, the celestial burial master goes to investigate how the dead died. According to Tibetan customs, those who are cut to death, shot to death or die of poison or contagious diseases are not allowed to be celestially buried.

The celestial burial master cleans the body of the dead and ties it into the form of an embryo (with hands meeting in front of the chest and sitting on folded legs) to be placed on the celestial rock.

On the burial day, the master arrives at four in the morning, and draws two white flour lines outside the house of the dead, lines which are one meter apart. He carries the body on his back and walks in-between the lines. This means this would not disturb those alive.

The sun does not appear on the eastern horizon when the body is carried to the celestial burial ground. The master lights aromatic plants for smoke, smoke used as a signal to cinereous vultures, and cut the body into pieces. The master does not have the final say as to which celestial ground is used. It is entirely the choice of relatives of the dead. According to Tibetan customs, people of the same family should not use the same celestial burial ground when dead in 12 years.

If the celestial burial ground is in faraway place, the master has to carry the body to the site at one o'clock at night. The celestial burial ground is generally located on a mountain slope, and the master has to carry the body there without rest halfway. If the master has disciples, he can have one of them to carry body in his place.

As one dies of varied diseases, some celestial burial master would wear white uniform but very few of them wear gloves.
Now, the fact that the WaPo published this image is pretty remarkable in itself. According to this China Daily page, you couldn't take this photo in Tibet. Trying to protect and respect their culture, they're closing ranks around this particular practice, keep it a secret.

It seems to me like they already would have done, because I for one have never heard of it. And yet it's how 80% of the Tibetan people say they would prefer to go.

glatt  Wednesday Apr 26 01:11 PM

It looks like the vultures aren't the only ones gnawing on leg bones.

I'm guessing the burial master is revered, but it sure seems like a sucky job.

rebelcan  Wednesday Apr 26 01:22 PM

This reminds me of one of the <a href="">Sandman</a> comics. It's the one where in the city of the dead where they handle the burial of everyone, a student gets sent to watch a burial similar to this. While the birds are busy, the student and the two ( or three ) other burial attendants pass the time while telling stories.

All in all, I think this is a pretty cool way to go. Better than having your remains pumped full of chemicals so you'll look the same forever, and then getting buried in a small ( and very pricey ) wooden box somewheres. Kind of a "returned to the nature that created you" kinda deal.

Happy Monkey  Wednesday Apr 26 01:27 PM

Yeah, Sandman came to mind for me, too. Gaiman has a way of filling your head with odd factoids.

Shocker  Wednesday Apr 26 01:38 PM

Looks like fun, think they would even allow that in the States?

barefoot serpent  Wednesday Apr 26 01:39 PM

neat... can I change my selection in the Final Choices thread?

edit: oh, n/m that was myfinal choice

Trilby  Wednesday Apr 26 03:22 PM

You know what? I KNEW not to look at/read the text for today's Iotd. I just knew it.


joelnwil  Wednesday Apr 26 03:25 PM

Zoroastrians do the same thing. The body is placed on a mountain or high building.

Ridgeplate  Wednesday Apr 26 03:30 PM

Originally Posted by joelnwil
Zoroastrians do the same thing. The body is placed on a mountain or high building.
Really? I thought for sure it had something to do with the backsides of Mexican swordsmen...

Learn something every day...

Promenea  Wednesday Apr 26 03:59 PM

One of my favorite poems:

Robinson Jeffers - Vulture

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you."
But how beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what and enskyment; what a life after death.

nephtes  Wednesday Apr 26 04:05 PM

Sky Burial

Aaah, I've read about this. It's also called "Sky Burial" (Wikipedia info). I originally came across this in a book by the same, a true story about a chinese woman named Shu Wen who travels to Tibet to search for her missing husband. Wholeheartedly recommended -- I read it almost cover-to-cover on a flight from Montreal to Miami. Absolutely spellbinding.

But I digress. Getting back to the ceremony itself, the description in the book is somewhat at odds with the Wikipedia article, which emphasizes the purely pragmatic aspects. According to my recollection, the body must be completely consumed; even the bones are ground up for the birds. Any remains would tie the spirit to this world, leaving it prey to demons and preventing it from moving on to reincarnation or nirvana.

Hey, who's to say this is weirder than spending two grand on a mahogany coffin so it can rot in the ground?

- Steve

Spexxvet  Wednesday Apr 26 07:19 PM

Originally Posted by glatt
It looks like the vultures aren't the only ones gnawing on leg bones.

I'm guessing the burial master is revered, but it sure seems like a sucky job.
Maybe he gets to keep the leavings.

xoxoxoBruce  Wednesday Apr 26 09:55 PM

Originally Posted by glatt
It looks like the vultures aren't the only ones gnawing on leg bones.
I think that's the thing he beats the gong thing with.

With this funeral, you could end up on a Cadillac windshield....but more likely a Yak.

rebelcan & nephtes, welcome to The Cellar.

Oafed  Thursday Apr 27 12:55 AM

I think that's the thing he beats the gong thing with.
I beg to differ!

Jordon  Thursday Apr 27 11:00 AM

Buddhists can be some pretty Goth folks. I just finished reading the biography of Milarepa, again. It was common to meditate in graveyards in order to impress oneself with the transitory nature of life. Then there's Celestial Burial. You end up as vulture poo. It's less ego flattering than all that morticians wax and pancake, formaldehyde and a casket that costs as much as and sort of looks like a Sky Blue Cadillac. If you want a concrete grave liner/sarcophagus type thang, that's extra, as are locks on the casket (don't ask), thank you for your Hallmark bereavement card embossed Stationary with the funeral parlor's name and website, flower arrangements, extra professional mourners, catering for the wake...

Flint  Thursday Apr 27 11:05 AM

My buddy was telling me about this guy who, based on a conversation he had with his friend, after the guy died he stole the body, went out to the middle of the desert and burned it, Vader-style, according to what he believed his friend's last wishes were. The guy that died was from some band, and they made a movie about it. Anybody heard of this/have more details?

rkzenrage  Thursday Apr 27 05:26 PM

If I had my way I would have a sky burial... I am now doing my best to avoid any chemicals or extreme expense involved with my burial.
Here in FL the mortuary lobby has this insanely corrupt law they pushed through where they force your family to buy a casket even if you are being cremated and never lie in said casket... it only exists on paper. Legal theft.
I am doing my best to do what I can to see if I can avoid a mortuary being involved in my death. Unfortunately we have to plan for it now due to my current condition. One plus is that I found out about this travesty.

xoxoxoBruce  Thursday Apr 27 09:14 PM

Originally Posted by Oafed
I beg to differ!
What do you know, you're stoned.

Flint, Gram Parsons.

Griff  Thursday Apr 27 09:20 PM

Nice way to pull up stakes.

Clodfobble  Friday Apr 28 05:46 PM

Why does he have to shoo the birds away if they're already done eating the body? Won't they fly away on their own?

rkzenrage  Friday Apr 28 09:43 PM

They have to make sure they ate everything, that all of them is gone.

Wombat  Sunday Apr 30 09:03 PM

They do this in high-up mountain regions because it's the only practical way to dispose of a dead body. They can't bury it because the ground is frozen and/or solid rock, and they can't cremate it because there are no trees growing at high altitudes so firewood is very scarce. The only choice left is to get the birds to clean up. A dead body is a major heath risk for everyone if it's not disposed of quickly.

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