Written by Margaret Gouin.

The Western understanding of Tibetan Buddhist death rituals is hampered by a popular perception that it consists of two elements only: reading the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, and giving the body to vultures to be consumed. In fact, Tibetan Buddhist funeral rites include a rich variety of practices with which Western scholarship — religious studies, anthropology, ethnography, sociology — has so far successfully avoided almost any serious engagement (the only comprehensive survey to date remains Tibetan Rituals of Death). Not only is the sequence of death rituals complex, there are many variations based on (among other things), the geographic area and ethnic group to which the deceased belonged, their tradition of practice within the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (leaving aside Bon), their wealth, social status, and gender.

Death is the single most important life event for a Tibetan Buddhist. How a person dies, and what kind of rituals are conducted for their benefit, can have a significant effect in securing for them a ‘fortunate rebirth’, one in which they may (continue to) make progress toward enlightenment.

Death rituals may be divided into four stages: immediately after death; disposal; immediately after disposal; and some time after disposal. Immediately after death and again after disposal, the survivors engage in activities which are meant to generate ‘benefit’, a positive spiritual quality which may be dedicated to the benefit of the deceased and applied to their spiritual state to either enhance existing good karma or counteract existing bad karma. Typically, the deceased’s family will commission the production of religious paintings (thangkas) or statues, and/or the copying of sacred scriptures; they may also pay for the performance of religious rituals. Parallel to these activities, and occasionally overlapping, are a series of rituals and practices intended to protect the survivors from any harmful effects arising from the death. In traditional Tibetan cultures, death is very rarely seen as natural but is believed to be the result of some kind of supernatural activity. If a demon is responsible for the death, it may decide to attack other members of the same family or community. This must be guarded against. Equally, if the proper rituals are not performed, the deceased may return; such returning ghosts are always understood to be ill-intentioned and must be exorcised.

The deceased’s subtle consciousness is believed to remain near to the place of death both before and immediately after disposal, and is able to hear what is said to it. Thus one of the most important parts of the death rites is reading a text to guide that consciousness towards a fortunate rebirth (this is by no means limited to the so-called ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, which is only one of many hundreds if not thousands of similar texts). Eventually, the consciousness is believed to move on towards rebirth. Traditionally this is said to happen after 49 days, although in fact the rituals do not often extend over such a long period. The performance of funerary rites are the province of religious professionals, either monastics (usually male, rarely female) or lamas; and while they are engaged in these activities they must be fed and housed with the best the family can offer. This can become an expensive undertaking, and historically it has not been unusual for families to beggar themselves in order to give the deceased a ‘meritorious’ funeral. Failure to do so, after all, may result in an indignant and disruptive ghost haunting the family home and ruining the family fortunes.

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Sky burial site (Image credit: CC by Carsten ten Brink/flickr)

The form of disposal most associated with Tibetan Buddhism in Western perceptions is the so-called ‘sky burial’, which is neither burial nor in the sky, but consists of exposing the body to be eaten by scavengers. The body may be left whole, cut into pieces, or partly cut (scored); and the scavengers may include vultures, eagles, crows, foxes, wolves, pigs and even dogs. In some regions the body (either cut up or whole) is thrown into a river or lake to be eaten by fish. Where wood is plentiful, the body may be burned on a pyre; but even where there is little wood, cremation may still be accomplished by putting the bundled-up body into a specially-built oven, where the air draft intensifies the flame available from (usually) soft-wood fuel. In addition, there are areas where earth burial is the common form of disposal. This includes placing a body in a hole dug in the ground, but also laying it on the surface of the ground and covering it with rocks. An unusual and rare form of disposal, generally reserved for persons of great spiritual attainment, is mummification.

There does not appear to be much in the way of long-term memorialisation of the deceased. Although ashes from cremation may be formed into small sculptures (tsa-tsa) and placed in shrines and other sacred spots, little seems to be done to mark the memory of particular deceased after the first year or so.

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Tsa-tsa composition (Image credit: CC by Carsten ten Brink/flickr)

There is very little Western research on the conduct of Tibetan Buddhist death rites since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951. A nebulous rumour that Chinese soldiers deliberately killed vultures, presumably to prevent giving the body to carrion birds, has never been substantiated that I am aware of. Ellen Bruno’s 2005 video record of a ‘sky burial’ at Drigung Monastery shows the disposal of several bodies to vultures but leaves unclear whether the additional rituals of benefit and protection were performed at the Monastery. An earlier (1996) report suggests that under Chinese rule, ‘sky burial’ procedures were to be licensed and supervised by local government officials, although there is no indication in the article of whether this supervision has ever been applied to other forms of disposal.

Other questions that remain unanswered concern the economic and social elements of the death rituals in Tibetan culture. The often elaborate rituals required to ensure a fortunate rebirth for the deceased were usually performed by either monastics or lamas, and since such activities were often many and costly, they formed a major source of revenue for the religious professionals. If government pressures have reduced the possibility of these rituals being performed, the religious organisations have lost considerable income. In addition, the performance of the death rites often engaged the entire community in a network of exchanges which were carried over from one death to the next. Interference with the ongoing flow of exchange might operate to destabilise traditional social arrangements. Finally, a great deal of artistic enterprise was involved in the various rituals, from having thangkas painted and scriptures copied to generate merit for the deceased, to the dances performed at funeral rituals and sculpting memorial tsa-tsas; without the ability to engage in these pursuits, a great deal of cultural activity (often of a ‘folk’ nature) risks disappearing without people outside Tibet even knowing about it.

Dr Margaret Gouin is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Image credit: CC by Parahamsa/flickr