“Your breath is still now… No warmth to your skin…
Do not be afraid. Everyone before you has died.
You cannot stay, anymore than a baby can stay forever in the womb.
Leave behind all you know, all you love.
Leave behind pain and suffering.
This is what death is.”
–Sky Burial: A Tibetan Death Ritual by Bruno Films
The vultures descend from the sky. They come down to earth and gather around the remains of the dead. The sight of the deceased human body shocks those amongst us who are not accustomed to viewing death as a source of life. Truly, the sight shouldn’t surprise us. We consume plant life, meat and sea creatures on a daily basis. We take the lives of others to sustain our existence. Death–the great sustainer of life–is all around us.
To the Tibetans, the vulture is a sacred bird. Vultures do not usually prey on living beings and instead sustain their existence through the carcass–a body that no longer possesses the breath of life. Scavenger birds–such as vultures, crows and some species of eagles–are often viewed with contempt and disgust. Oh, how short-sighted we humans are! In nature, everything has its purpose. In nature, nothing is wasted. In nature, even death is a source of nourishment. A source of life.
The vultures gather and feast on the remains of the dead human body. They tear the flesh away from the bones. The sight is frighteningly primal. It awakens the most primal of our fears. The fear of our impermanence. The fear of returning to the Source that created us all. And yet, it is our destiny. The same destiny that awaits all of Mother Nature’s creations. It is Her cycle–Her grand cycle of life.
The vultures consume the carcass and ascend to the sky–returning the body to the heavens where the soul of the deceased resides till it is ready for its next incarnation. The practice of sky burial is believed to have been practiced for as many as 11,000 years, but there is little written evidence, or even physical evidence, due to the fact that the remains are ingested by vultures or other animals. Our prior existence disappears from this world as we welcome a new birth, a new life. The physical body perishes without a trace, but the soul continues to live. It continues to awaken. It continues to grow and prepare for its next journey.
The demise of the physical body is not the end, but a new beginning. In the carcass of loss, a new form of existence awaits. Buddhists are not alone in believing that a person’s consciousness or spirit lives on after death.
In accepting death, we honour life. In returning to Mother Nature what we temporarily borrowed, we honour and accept the Great Cycle that created us all and to whom we will inevitably have to return.