In Tibet, funeral services follow traditional customs such as Tomb Stupa, Cremation, Sky Burial, Water burial, and Ground burial. These services adhere to a strict hierarchical structure and clear demarcation. The choice of service primarily relies on the divination from Lama.
Tomb Pagodas are used to honour and remember virtuous and talented individuals who have died. After a renowned Living Buddha passes away, their body is cleansed with camphor water, saffron crocus water, and mercury. Then, the body is wrapped in a silk mourning stupa and dressed in a cassock. Lamas maintain a burning butter lamp day and night as an offering. Tomb stupas can be made of gold, silver, wood, or earth, depending on the rank of the Living Buddha. Dalai and Panchen are placed in golden stupas, while other Living Buddhas have different types of stupas.
Cremation is a respected tradition in Tibet. The body is burned with butter on wood and straw, and the ashes are then placed in a wooden box or buried in the earth. Alternatively, ashes may be scattered on a mountain or in a river. However, revered figures like Living Buddhas or Lamas have their ashes housed in a small gold or silver tower, along with books, joss, instruments, and treasures. This tower, known as a Tomb Pagoda or Relics, is used for worship.
Celestial Burial, also known as “Bird Burial,” is a popular funeral practice in Tibet. It is preferred by farmers, herders, and ordinary individuals, as Buddhists believe it leads to heaven. Each district has dedicated celestial burial sites and trained masters for this ceremony. When someone passes away, they are positioned sitting with their head against their knees. The body is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and placed on an earthen platform behind the door. Lamas recite scriptures aloud to free the soul from purgatory.
The family selects an auspicious day for the body to be taken to the celestial burial platform. “Su” smoke is burned to attract condors, while Lamas recite sutras to absolve the soul’s sins. A trained celestial burial master handles the body, and then the condors arrive, attempting to devour it. When a body is consumed, it signifies that the person had no sin and the soul peacefully reached Paradise. Otherwise, the body is burned, and Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins. Tibetans consider the condors on the mountains around the burial platform as “sacred birds” that solely feed on human bodies. The service takes place in the morning, with the body sent before dawn and the ceremony commencing at sunrise. Unauthorized visitors are prohibited from observing.
Poor families unable to afford a Lama often resort to water burials. During the ceremony, the body is carried on the back to the riverside, dismembered, and thrown into the river. In certain areas, the body is wrapped in cloth or a blanket and immersed in the river with heavy stones as an offering to the River God.
Tibetans view earth burial as inferior, reserved for those with infectious diseases or victims of crimes. It serves to prevent disease spread and punish the deceased in hell.
The Tibetan government and travel agencies discourage tourists from attending Sky burial services. The same sentiment is shared by the Tibetan people, particularly the deceased’s family members. Please respect both local customs and the emotions of ordinary individuals.