Thursday, 20 March 2014

If it has to a choice between Celine Dion or a Tibetan sky burial.............

Life is full of strange coincidences, isn't it? No sooner had I posted yesterday's blog on funeral songs than a poem called Sky Burial pinged into my in-box as my Poem of the Day. It's in free verse and comes from US poet, Ron Koertge. I've never heard of him either. Should I? I ought to look him up on Google sometime, but not right now. Anyway, here's his poem:

Q: You're such a disciplined writer. Were you always that way?
A:  When I was in graduate school, I worked part-time in a local library.
I ran the used bookstore in the basement. The money came in handy. There was plenty of time to study.
I learned to know the regulars who talked about living with pain and waiting for bland meals to be delivered.
One sweltering afternoon I read about Tibetan body breakers who dismember corpses with their hatchets and flaying knives so the vultures will have an easier time.
I imagined my own body and the monks asking, "What did this one do?". And the answer would be, "Not much." As the hand I could have written with flew away from the wrist.

The poem came with this quote from the author: "It is absolutely autobiographical. It just took me thirty-five years to write it." Not a rush job, then but it does one of the things I like poems to do for me: it made me think. Think about Tibetan body breakers as I'd never heard of them before. And think about the response if the question "what did this one do?" were directed to my remains. But I'm not going to dwell on the latter as the former piqued my interest enough for me to find out more. Read on but be warned that what comes is rather close to the bone, in more ways than one.

A rather gruesome photograph showing
a bone-breaker at his grizzly task. Searching via
Google under 'Tibetan Sky Burials' pulls up
some very graphic images - not for the
squeamish or faint-hearted.
There are two forms of sky burial (jhator) practised in Tibet. The first, and the one that immediately crossed my mind, is where the deceased is simply placed on a high rock where the body decomposes or is eaten by birds and animals. This is the method adopted by remote villagers, nomads and those who cannot afford the more elaborate, ritualised form of sky burial.

In this, the second of the two types of sky burial, family members make offerings at a monastery and prayers are said for the dead. The body is blessed, cleaned and wrapped in white cloth. Then the corpse's spine is broken (ouch!). This allows the body to be folded into a smaller bundle, as it will be carried to the sacred burial site, or dürtro, on the back of a close friend or family member. The journey to the dürtro begins at dawn and can be quite a trek as they're usually situated at high altitudes far from residential areas. Family members may follow along on this journey, chanting and playing double-sided hand drums, but they keep their distance during the physical breaking of the body.

The work of disassembling the body may be done by a monk but, more commonly, by rogyapas ("body-breakers"). With the body positioned face down on stones, the rogyapa burns juniper incense to attract the vultures and sets to work with an axe or ritual flaying knife. He cuts off the hair first and then begins slicing up the body, eviscerating it and chopping off the limbs. As he flays meat from bone, he tosses it to the swarm of vultures gathered for the feast (I'm never going to look at our bird table in quite the same way from now on). The rogyapa then pulverizes the remaining bones with a hammer, mixing them with tsampa, or barley flour, for easier consumption by the birds. Eyewitness accounts have remarked on the fact that the rogyapas did not perform their task with any gravity or ceremony, but rather talked and laughed as during any other type of physical labour. According to Buddhist teaching, this makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move on from the uncertain plane between life and death onto the next life. 

For Tibetan Buddhists, the sky burial is part of the teaching of the impermanence of life. Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since they are providing food to sustain other living beings. Such generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues in Buddhism.

So, there you have it: the Tibetan sky burial. Is this the ultimate in eco-friendly body disposal? What could be more carbon friendly than this? However, I don't think it's for me, it's not the British way, is it?  And we don't have vultures in the UK. Just think how long a flock of house sparrows would take to get through 85 kg of me!

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