Vultures and Voyeurs: A Tibetan Sky Burial
Death. It is an ugly word to most of us, one we try to live life ignoring. Of course, we all are going to die – later, rather than sooner, is the hope. What happens to our corpse depends on various factors: religious beliefs, cause of death, financial means, care and concern of survivors. Most of us will be buried, though cremation is gaining ground in Western cultures. Few of us expect to be eaten by birds. At least we hope not to be, unless we are Tibetan Buddhists.
I try not to wonder what his name was, not to ask questions. Who made his heart go thump? The same heart that is being cut from his corpse. Did he have children whose faces he lovingly caressed with his hands? The same hands that are being hacked from his arms. What did he do with those arms? Were they strong? What did they build and create, or did they destroy, cause harm? Was there a woman who closed her eyes and gently inhaled the scent of his hair as she tenderly stroked his head? The same head whose skull is burning on a small bonfire…
Tears well in my eyes, and the questions keep coming. Who else is shedding a tear for this man? A wife? Children? Friends? Colleagues? If they exist, they are not here. It is just me, a monk, two men with axes, one man fanning a fire, another calling for the vultures to come, a handful of Tibetans passing through, six Chinese tourists and three fellow foreign backpackers.
Involuntarily, I reach for Emily’s hand, the Canadian who has come along to watch the Tibetan sky burial and who is also disgusted by the scene. Frozen we stand, 30 feet from the concrete block, our eyes closed. But the whacking sounds break through the crisp morning air, making it impossible to escape the fact that a dead man will soon be breakfast for birds. I am saddened. I am scared. I am shaking. Yet, I open my eyes. Mesmerized and even energized, I need to watch.
Thankfully, the viewing is limited. Though I clearly saw his emaciated frame, his toothpick-like legs tucked under him, as the two men sat him up, in preparation of the first cut: splitting the skull. Silently, I said a prayer. I hoped he was a good man, who had a full life and lead an honorable existence.
A Chinese tourist dashes forward with his tripod-mounted camera, on which is a monster lens that would make the paparazzi proud, but the monk waves him away. Quietly, we stand and stare. Having checked my watch, I am wondering how long it takes to cut up a corpse. Turns out, 30 minutes of hard chopping.
Bodies – those of babies, children, adults and the elderly; it doesn’t matter – are brought from as far as 200 miles away to this long-held sacred hill overlooking the Tibetan village of Langmusi in the mountains of central China, and the expectant vultures eagerly circle. As I am told by a Tibetan, “the spirit just borrows the body.” He explains that this day’s dead man will move on to another realm – which one, of course, depends on his karma. And so there is no reason to be sad; the spirit of the man is gone, only his shell remains. When asked why no loved ones are present, he replies that family and friends are forbidden from attending. Prior prayers were said at the house by a monk, but now is merely the time to dispose of the corpse. The questions abound, but the man’s English is limited, and so I stand there mulling over the mess in front of me.
Flying feathers, squawks, pushing and shoving – the birds move in for their morning meal. I move in as well. Again, I consult my watch. How long will it take for the dozens of vultures to devour the corpse? The monk doesn’t mind us approaching; he is too busy checking out the kick-ass camera of the Chinese tourist. Though there isn’t too much to see, except for the birds, flashes of flesh and the remains of past sky burials.
At my feet is a skull, as well as a little girl’s pink shoe and a blue china cup with flowers. Colorful clothing, rusted hunks of metal, bits of bone and more skulls are strewn about. It had been explained to me that the bones are ground with barley, so that the vultures consume every bit of the body. But clearly that isn’t always the case. A headless skeleton lay a few feet from the feasting vultures. No arms, but the spine, rib cage, legs and feet are intact – an example of shoddy work, I am sadly told. Camera in hand, I approach. And, yes, I click away.
Thirty-five minutes later, the vultures fly away. The monk moves on, cameras are encased and the remaining bit of burnt skull is packed away, so that one day the family can carry it to the holy city of Lhassa in Tibet.
Sparkling like sapphires in the May sky are the piercing blue eyes of my sister Stephanie. My friend Fran’s smile dances down from the cottony clouds. The morning breeze carries with it the laughter of my colleague Belinda. Down the hill I go, my nephews’ hands in mine. I am in China, but my family and friends are here with me. Giddily, I grin. I am happy. I am alive.