Outside Lhasa, Tibet we visited the Phabonkha monastery home of the Sky Burial – the preferred burial by Tibetan Buddhists. Here, the deceased are delivered early in the morning by a carefully chosen undertaker to be dismembered, meat separated from the bones and placed out for the vultures to eat. You are considered to have good Karma if all that remains are the bones which have been picked clean. The remaining bones are then crushed with large homemade sledge hammers and mixed with tsamba (a mixture of barley, sugar, salt and butter tea – consumed daily by Tibetans) and offered again to the vultures. (We did not witness this burial.)
In Kaathmandu on the banks of the Bagmati River, which flows into the sacred Ganges River, we witnessed cremations at Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu Shrine in Nepal. In a city of 4,000,000 the Shrine is busy 24 hours a day with families saying goodbye to loved ones as they are cremated. Cows and monkeys waded in the river unaware while painted, hippy Hindu Holy Men sat at the Stupas on the shore hoping for quick cash in exchange for a photo, priests handed out blessings and family members picnicked on the steps.
Separate concrete platforms line the Bagmati – each family occupying a space. The local bodies are not embalmed and can be cremated within 3 hours of dying. Our guide’s mother died at 12:30 am and was cremated at 3:30 am. A coffin also was present, most likely flown in from Malaysia.
The deceased is carried clock wise around the stack of logs 3 times then placed upon the stacked logs. The sons step down to the river to perhaps sip the river water, cleanse their hands, place water upon their heads and return with handfuls of water to be placed on their father’s head.
The eldest son sets fire to the mouth first as they believe that the spirit of the deceased leaves the body from the mouth. The undertaker steps in to place river-soaked straw on the body to ensure the proper amount of smoke and keep the fire hot.
A body can take 2 to 5 hours to burn. Birth records and citizen documents are burned with the body (no need for this in the afterlife). Finally all remaining ashes are swept into the river for it is sacred.
It was surreal and serene but inexplicably we felt detached for no one was crying. Apparently that was because the dead were all old. With an unexpected death there is wailing.
The photos are of Phabonkha…