This is the first article in a new blog series brought to you by Sussex Funeral Services exploring funeral rites and rituals around the world. Join us as we look into how different peoples both mourn and celebrate death.
Jhator is the ancient ritual of death among Tibetan Buddhists that dates back over eleven-thousand years, and is still in practice today. The earliest writings of this ritual are found in the Buddhist Book of the Dead, a guidebook on Buddhist customs surrounding death and reincarnation. It is believed to have been written sometime in the twelfth century, dictating a funeral ritual still used today in Tibetan villages due to limitations of terrain and altitude: the sky burial.
Jhator, or sky burial, is a ritual stemming from the Buddhist belief in reincarnation; as the body is merely a vessel to house the spirit, which will be reborn into a different physical form, it holds no inherent meaning once the person passes away. According to belief, the body can even hold a soul back from the next life if not disposed of.
Following the death of a loved one, the body is laid out for a period of three days, during which time monks chant and pray. The day before the sky burial, the body is washed and enveloped in white cloth. At dawn Llamas lead a funeral procession to the ritual grounds, also known as charnel grounds, which are located high in the hills, usually near Tibetan monasteries. The body is then unwrapped and dismembered in precise patterns, which are then laid out for the already-circling birds of prey in an exact order, to ensure the entire body is eaten and the soul is freed.
While that may sound extremely taboo in our Western culture, there is great religious significance behind sky burials. Loved ones are invited to watch the ritual being performed, and to use the time to meditate on the impermanence of life and to witness the body as merely a husk for the far more important element: the soul. It is thought that once the body has been reclaimed by nature and disposed of, the soul can finally be free to move on to reincarnation, and the next life that awaits. The birds eating the empty husk that is the remaining corpse are seen as merely fulfilling the circle of life, and freeing the soul from its earthly bonds. The birds of prey, particularly vultures, are viewed in Tibetan culture as being Dakinis, or angels, as it is their duty to take the soul into the heavens. Additionally, it is seen as virtuously sparing the lives of the smaller creatures the birds of prey would have consumed had it not been for the burial.
While the sky burial is a story of macabre interest to the Westerner, Tibetans do not visit the sites of sky burials out of curiosity, and photography of sky burials is forbidden in Tibetan culture, as it is thought to interfere with the ascent of the soul to the heavens.