In the very early history of Tibet the dead may have been buried in the ground, but with soil at a premium and firewood equally scarce, Tibetans have spent the last few centuries coming up with alternative ways to get rid of remains. Cremation was an honour reserved only for lamas and senior monks; in the past, commoners were usually tossed in the river.
Since the introduction of Buddhism to the region in the 800s, however, sky burials have become the most common way to dispose of the dead. They're also among the most intriguing social practices to emerge from a culture that still remains full of mystery to most outsiders.
When a Tibetan dies, the corpse is kept for 24 hours in a sitting position while a lama recites prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These prayers speed the soul through the 49 levels of Bardo - the state between death and rebirth. Three days after death the body is blessed, folded and carried on the back of a close friend to the drto, or burial site.
The charnel ground is usually a large fenced meadow where prayer flags hang and the scent of smoldering juniper purifies the air. Here, special body breakers known as rogyapas cut off the deceased's hair, chop up the body with knives and hatchets and pound the bones, mixing them with flour. Vultures - previously kept at bay by men waving sticks - then complete the job of disposal, often helped by wild dogs.
Although the rogyapas have a special place in Tibetan society, their work is not hampered by ceremony or squeamishness. Their job is a matter-of-fact one, and they will talk and laugh as they tend to their necessary task.
Despite their apparent brutality, sky burials are not a time for sadness or mourning. The soul is considered to have already left the body: the time is used by friends and family for reflection on the impermanence of life. Tibetans are encouraged to witness these rituals and to confront death openly. It might not be to everyone's tastes, but Tibetans could never be accused of denying death. This open mindset carries over into everyday life, where objects as common as trumpets and bowls are often made from human bone.
Although much is known about the process of sky burial, very few travellers have witnessed the ceremony first hand. It's easy to see why foreigners might be interested in seeing a sky burial themselves, however it is a private ritual, and a stranger's presence demeans the burial. Even foreigners who have been invited to a sky burial have been chased away before the rogyapas set to work. If you get too close, expect to have stones - and even corpse knives - thrown at you by Tibetans, or - only slightly less unpleasant - you might be arrested by the Chinese authorities, interrogated, fined and forced to sign an 'admission of guilt'.destination
Throughout Tibet; wherever there's a death and an elevated burial site how
Fly to Gonggar, near Lhasa, from Beijing or Kathmandu, or drive the Friendship Highway from Nepal tip
Ask questions, but don't try to crash the party - you weren't invited so don't go link
For a run-down on Buddhism and all things Tibetan, have a squiz at Tibet Online