Crazy Fascinating Things You Didn't Know About Sky Burial  

Jeff Richard
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When the great Hunter S. Thompson died, he wished for his ashes to be fired into the sky out of a cannon he designed himself. While not exactly a "burial" in the traditional sense, this final act of sending oneself out into the world (literally) was seen as a celebration in exposing his final remains to the elements. 

Similarly, sky burials, while cannon-less, also embrace the concept of returning one's mortal bits to the rest of the Earth - albeit in a far more gruesome way. 

Vultures. Mountains. Corpses. Ritual flaying knives. Put these things together and you've got someone getting taking apart in one of the most bizarre rituals on Earth. Simply put, a sky burial, known as Jhator in Tibet, is a funeral practice which involves placing the naked body of the recently deceased on a mountaintop where it is to be slowly picked apart by vultures. 

And if that weren't enough, the list below is where it gets really crazy.

Sky Burial Is a Meaningful Buddhist Ceremony
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So, what's the point of leaving a body out in the open? One might think it's disrespectful to the corpse, but the truth is that a sky burial, also known as a celestial burial, is actually a highly noble Tibetan ceremony which allows the body to be returned to nature as a gift. 

After death, the body is no longer required, and thus, would certainly go to waste. Instead, as a final act, it is returned back to nature as an act of compassion, one of the main virtues of Buddhism. 

And that's where the vultures come in.

The Corpse-consuming Vultures Are Considered Holy
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To most of us, vultures are seen as grotesque and gangly abominations of the bird world. Scavengers that are more akin to grave-robbers, they are known to let nature run its course (or let someone else do their dirty work) and simply bide their time, waiting to come upon an already-dead animal to find their meal. 

Not so in the world of Tibetan Buddhism. Here, practitioners believe the vultures are similar to angels. Referred to as Dakinis (or, "sky dancers"), the vultures are said to help escort the deceased's soul into heaven -- after they rip, rend, and devour the rest of its flesh, entrails, and bones, of course.

The Pre-burial Ritual Lasts Three Days
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Photo:  John Hill

Although the act of leaving a body to be devoured atop a mountain certainly sounds cruel on the surface (and would likely get you arrested in virtually any other part of the world), there is actually a solemn ritual that goes along with it. 

For three days, the corpse is left untouched while a lama (a Tibetan Buddhist instructor), recites prayers to help the soul migrate onto the next life. But on the day before the burial, the body is wrapped in white cloths and set into the fetal position. 

The idea behind this? Go back to the form from whence we came.

The Corpses Are Dismembered so They Can Be Folded and Transported
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Following the quiet and solemn ritual to prepare the soul of the deceased, the time has now come for the actual burial - and this is where things get violent. 

After the body has been properly prepared for three days, it's now time to bring it to the burial site, called a dürtro, at the top of a nearby mountain. The problem is, most corpses are very difficult to carry even a small distance, let alone vertically. 

The solution? The corpse's spine is broken, allowing it to be folded into a more manageable shape for easy travel. Sort of like a nifty piece of collapsible luggage that can fit into any tight overhead space. 

After the body is led to the dürtro, several monks, called ropyagas, or "body breakers", prepare the body for consumption by the vultures. 

Using hatchets to dismember limbs, cleavers to flay off skin, and knives to slice the hair from the scalp, the monks then carve the body into smaller pieces. Everything from the flesh to the internal organs to the bones themselves are prepared as a meal -- and occasionally ground into pulp and mixed with barley and flour -- for the vultures, now ready to descend.