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Sky burials in Tibet
January 23, 2010 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Sky burials are often practiced in the mountains of Tibet, both for religious and practical reasons. Basically, the corpse is placed on a mountain top and sliced open in various places, to attract the birds of prey circling above. They’d probably feast on it anyway, but an invitation like that doesn’t hurt.
posted by Mr_Zero (107 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
See: Prometheus.
posted by ericb at 12:02 AM on January 24, 2010


Gross. I can't believe they hang around for the entire process, to chop up the bones afterward.

It looked like they cut off the corpse's hair, why? Also, why did its head look so misshapen?
posted by breath at 12:16 AM on January 24, 2010


Someone should probably note that at least one of the photos isn't particularly safe for those with weak stomachs, though there are certainly more graphic documentations of this practice elsewhere on the Internet.
posted by SpringAquifer at 12:18 AM on January 24, 2010


That's how I want to go. Though in my case, I would have to settle for pigeons on the top of my building. And we don't have a flat roof, so I guess I'd have to be tied to a chimney.
posted by pracowity at 12:28 AM on January 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


Not an entirely unique practice - see Parsis.
posted by Gyan at 12:32 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


....also the three incan corpses on Llullaillaco
posted by dongolier at 12:55 AM on January 24, 2010


breath, upon enlarging the image, it looks as if the body is prone and decapitated. I think the hairlessness and deformity you are seeing are just a result of the "impossible" angle of the severed head relative to the rest of the body.
posted by Graygorey at 12:56 AM on January 24, 2010


Does anybody else see the banner ad on that page that advertises some sort of "Easy Three-Step Process?" I keep mistaking it for being, uh, relevant to the content in some horrific way.

I've heard of sky burials before, and always thought they sounded nauseating. But this actually makes them look quite. . . I don't know, what's the word here? Not sweet, certainly, but, I don't know, fitting.
posted by KathrynT at 1:30 AM on January 24, 2010


This would make a decent addendum to a certain AskMe classic...
posted by xqwzts at 1:36 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Another set of sky burial photos is in this link (WAY GRAPHIC!) (originally posted on Reddit a few months ago). There are a few interesting comments at the very end of the page from people who claim to have attended such events.
posted by barnacles at 1:55 AM on January 24, 2010


I've visited Tibet quite a few times and on one of those occasions went to Drigung Til monastery, which is a famous site for sky burials. People will bring their deceased relatives from far away for a funeral to be performed there.
On the way we stopped in a very small town and got something to eat at a tiny roadside tea-house. Tibetan people are by and large very friendly with visitors but there were three blokes at the back of the room who were very stony faced - one of them was an absolutely massive lad, six foot six I reckon and as broad, with his hair done in the traditional Khamba style which suggested they'd come from a long way east. Anyway, we found out why they weren't looking too cheerful as they arrived at the monastery about the same time as us and took the body of a relative out the back of their pick-up. As is the custom, the corpse was trussed up in a blanket with knees drawn up to chest. They body was set down in the centre of the monastery courtyard and several of the monks began a night-watch over it where they recited sutras. Made for quite an atmosphere.
The burial was due to take place come morning at the dedicated charnel grounds up on a ridge a little way from the main monastery halls. We met a couple of other Western travellers who'd come specially to see this, which to be frank I found a bit ghoulish, a feeling that only got stronger when a couple of 4X4s arrived with more tourists eager to watch. Not that I think it bothered the locals, who have a different attitude to death and the body but all quite unseemly from my point of view. So we didn't join the rush up to the charnel ground where the body was being prepared then butchered, but we did stop on our trek up the ridge opposite and watch all the big birds of prey wheeling in, which was quite an impressive sight - lammergeiers mostly I think but I'm no expert.
posted by Abiezer at 2:12 AM on January 24, 2010 [18 favorites]


When I first saw this, I thought of posting it here, but figured that it would get a lot of negative reaction.

Me, I found the pictures I saw (which were much larger and more graphic than those linked) very spiritual and highly moving. This is the kind of burial I'd want for myself: to be distributed among a flock of soaring birds as their sustenance, to be lifted into flight, albeit in chunks and pieces.
posted by orthogonality at 2:19 AM on January 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


I agree the concept's really appealing, ortho, though one of the locals who may well have been winding us up did say the birds will of course sometimes drop chunks of the body, so you might find a finger in your cabbage patch or the like!
The other big option in Tibet used to be river burial, which seems like a terrible idea if people and livestock are going to be drinking the water, but I think aside from spiritual considerations it's to do with the difficulty of burial in much of the high plateau and lack of fuel-wood for cremation as in other Buddhist cultures.
posted by Abiezer at 2:23 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've often thought that a good American equivalent to a sky burial would be to donate your body to a body farm. I think it would have a similar effect - offering the abandoned husk up to the elements, but with the added bonus of concretely actually benefiting others, which is even more important from a Buddhist standpoint.
My wife is not so into this, though, so let's all hope I don't die before I can convince her.
posted by smartyboots at 2:28 AM on January 24, 2010


The body farm used to appeal to me; any science usually does. But given increasing evidence that forensic science is used unscientifically in courtrooms, and given that we've seen too may innocent persons sent to death row, I don't want to risk evidence from my corpse being used to falsely convict someone.

Yes, the more knowledge we have, the less chance of bad science. But our justice system and its use of "expert" witnesses is too corrupt for me to want to risk this; my morality tends to be finicky.
posted by orthogonality at 2:36 AM on January 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Does anybody else see the banner ad on that page that advertises some sort of "Easy Three-Step Process?" I keep mistaking it for being, uh, relevant to the content in some horrific way.

Cut down 3lbs of your belly by using this one weird old tip.
posted by ersatz at 3:09 AM on January 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


Nicely done, ersatz.
posted by Decimask at 4:41 AM on January 24, 2010


I've often thought that a good American equivalent to a sky burial would be to donate your body to a body farm. I think it would have a similar effect - offering the abandoned husk up to the elements, but with the added bonus of concretely actually benefiting others

I think the thing I really like about the sky burial is that it very much does benefit others -- just non-human others. I'd be kind of down with having my body deep-fried and left for raccoons, because those dudes are completely excellent.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:43 AM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Veterenary use of diclofenac has decimated the vulture population in India, which has led to serious problems for the the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community, who like to use Towers of Silence to get rid of dead people.
posted by Siberian Mist at 4:52 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


If I must be eaten after I die (it seems to be a requirement), I would rather be eaten by soaring birds on a mountain than gnawed by little writhing worms or nibbled apart by unblinking fishes or rotted by bacteria into a stinking goo under the ground or processed into flavoured green wafers stamped with an "eat by" date. Consummation by wild cats on the African plains would also be OK.
posted by Auden at 5:03 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's how I want to go.

Likewise. After donating my organs, the rest of my body might as well be of some good to something. I don't particularly care if that means sky burial, being dumped into the weeds behind a highway guardrail for the possoms to forage on, or being ground up into fish food. I'm not using my body anymore at that point, so why not?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:27 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Alright what are the permits required to setup a sky burial operation in the USA? Is it even possible? What state would be the best? Or would this be more of an askme question?
posted by humanfont at 5:51 AM on January 24, 2010


Consummation by wild cats on the African plains would also be OK.

You want lions to have sex with your corpse as part of a mating ritual?

Can I watch?
posted by pracowity at 6:00 AM on January 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Consummation by wild cats on the African plains would also be OK.

You want lions to have sex with your corpse as part of a mating ritual?

Can I watch?


... yes, on YouTube (duh).
posted by Auden at 6:09 AM on January 24, 2010


Here are a few more (graphic) Sky Burial photos taken by my travel partner.
posted by gman at 6:17 AM on January 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Gross.

Maybe it's just me, but I can't see how this is more gross than embalming a body, dressing it and putting makeup on it, having everyone look at the dressed up and embalmed body, then putting it in a metal box in the ground.
posted by Houstonian at 6:22 AM on January 24, 2010 [34 favorites]


Considering that our biomass has to be returned to the environment somehow, maybe being made into Soylent Green would be the most appropriate way to go for someone of our culture. How it's Made could do a tour of the plant.
posted by localroger at 6:25 AM on January 24, 2010


I think it's a really beautiful thing.
posted by Monkeymoo at 6:36 AM on January 24, 2010


Woah. Not what I was expecting to see before breakfast, but fascinating nonetheless.

And like others have said, I do wish that there was some option more like this available here. It seems more useful and becoming to be returned directly to the world this way, rather than pickled in formaldehyde and buried in a casket.
posted by Forktine at 6:39 AM on January 24, 2010


I plant to have my ashes serving as plant food for the ivy on the outfield walls of Wrigley Field, but really, anything constructive like this that celebrates the biodegradable nature of bodies would be fine.

As a solitary human with many dogs and cats, I fear dropping dead in my house where no one will notice soon enough to rescue my poor critters before they die of thirst -- and the one consolation is that at least they'd get a pretty good last meal (or, um, several, but let's not think about that).
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2010


Er, plan
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:45 AM on January 24, 2010


lammergeiers mostly I think but I'm no expert.

It's mostly Himalayan griffon vultures, which are terrifyingly huge and tend fly in enormous, slow, ominously descending swoops around any peak that a totally alive and non-hacked-to-bits traveler might chance to stop upon and take some innocent nature photographs of the sunset by Drigung monastery.

Sky burial is difficult for most people to watch or even comprehend, because no matter how detached you feel from the individual, it is still difficult for most human beings to watch another human being very calmly and methodically dismembered in broad daylight amid stunning scenery. I agree that in practice it is no better or worse than the process of enbalming a body, but then again, not many of us are present for that particular ritual either.
posted by elizardbits at 6:47 AM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


As a solitary human with many dogs and cats, I fear dropping dead in my house where no one will notice soon enough to rescue my poor critters before they die of thirst -- and the one consolation is that at least they'd get a pretty good last meal (or, um, several, but let's not think about that).

Murakami did.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:05 AM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh wow. See also: book 8 of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, specifically the story "Cerements," which I just read last week.
posted by limeonaire at 7:13 AM on January 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


Probably what bothers us is the hacking up of the corpse for the bird buffet, but it makes sense.

It reminds me of a comment I made regarding a quote from Bill Bryson, which talks about about how our atoms end up being dispersed into other things (over a long, long period of time that is, if you opt for a traditional burial).

The way these guys do it, the birds eat you, excrete you, and you fertilise something else, all quite quickly.

I think that's rather neat.
posted by bwg at 7:25 AM on January 24, 2010


Alright what are the permits required to setup a sky burial operation in the USA?

None that we know of, but there's always a wood-chipper ready and waiting in Fargo.
posted by bwg at 7:27 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, this would fuck with my Futurama existence, but on the other hand I get to feed some birds, so yay?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:36 AM on January 24, 2010


I witnessed a sky burial in Tibet in 2004. I never expected to - I was visiting a monastery (in Xin Du Qiao) on a day when two men were buried, and after a long conversation with the abbot of the monastery, he invited me (and the 3 people I was traveling with) to watch. I didn't know a lot about the ceremony, and I was pretty nervous - I assumed it'd be disgusting, foul-smelling, bloody, too gross to look at, who knows what else...

The actual experience was unlike anything else I've ever experienced. A small crowd of people (us, and the family) walked to the top of a mountain where the burial platforms were. The platforms were old, worn stone slabs, and the bodies were lying on them, covered. There was a large stone fireplace next to the platforms. On a small outcropping above, one of the senior monks was sitting in meditation on a smaller stone slab. I was told, by the younger monk who had been assigned to take care of us, that the senior monk was calling the vultures. Two people close to the deceased - I'm not sure if they were close friends or family members - had the difficult job of first burning ritual offerings (they looked like evergreen sprigs, I'm not sure exactly what they were) in the fireplace and then using their knives to cut the deceased to pieces and feed them to the vultures. Pretty grisly job.

Here's where the experience sets itself apart from any other experience I've ever had in my life. The old senior monk finished his meditation. I was told that the vultures would then arrive. Within a minute or two, out of a previously clear, empty sky, appeared about a hundred vultures. The burial platform was located near the top of a mountain, but in a sort of "crater" - and so one couldn't see down the mountainside. This made the simultaneous arrival of the vultures all the more startling. They flew directly towards the bodies, but stopped several feet away. Some of the more timid ones settled maybe 10 or 20 feet from the body, on the surrounding rocks. They just waited. There is no way I will ever forget that - all those vultures simultaneously appearing in the sky, landing, and then waiting. The family members began the task of chopping up the bodies. Every time they cut off a new piece, they would toss it to the vultures. For a brief moment, the vultures acted, well, like I would have expected them too - clamoring for the piece of flesh, making noise, fighting with each other - and then, when the piece was gone, they stopped again, and just waited. Memorably, one vulture attempted (this is distasteful, I know), to eat the toe of one of the deceased during the ceremony. He was shooed away. It was literally the only time I saw one of the birds approach the bodies. Otherwise they just stood there and waited.

Nobody said anything during the entire ceremony. It took maybe half an hour. When it was almost done, there was one more unpleasant task to be done. The brain of the deceased had to be blended with something - sugar, or flour? I'm not sure - to make it more palatable to the birds,who would otherwise not eat it. This was done in what looked like a butter churn, again wtihout commentary. At the very end, everybody just took a moment quietly, and then the family members led the procession down the mountain. At the bottom, nothing was said and everybody dispersed.

I've tried, many times, and in many ways, to somehow write down what was so remarkable, mysterious, and un-understandable about the experience... how it posed a question to my scientist's mind most certainly hasn't been answered... how it posed a question to my meditator's mind that doesn't need an answer... but, like at the burial itself... I think it's best to just say nothing.
posted by Cygnet at 7:45 AM on January 24, 2010 [216 favorites]


Just leave me out for the squirrels...
posted by Artw at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2010


The sprigs are juniper I believe, Cygnet and I understand that parts of the body are often ground and mixed with tsampa (the roasted barley flour that's the Tibetan staple).
posted by Abiezer at 7:55 AM on January 24, 2010


So "eaten by a bear and shit over a cliff" is more authentic some places than others. . .
posted by Danf at 7:59 AM on January 24, 2010


Abiezer - I seem to remember that it wasn't tsampa - just sugar - but I wasn't sure. Tsampa certainly would have made sense culturally, but I think one one of the monks may have tried to tell me (communication was difficult, my Chinese and his English being limited) that the vultures like sugar.

And yes, they certainly looked like juniper sprigs, but while I was in Tibet I never managed to learn the proper Chinese or Tibetan names for all the various evergreens... sadly... I just didn't want to say something I wasn't absolutely sure of.
posted by Cygnet at 8:00 AM on January 24, 2010


"Burial" by exposure to air or by placement of the body in high places is not just a Buddhist thing of course -- on the Northwest Coast of North America 'tree burials' were common, with bodies usually placed in boxes (but sometimes just exposed on platforms in trees). I made a short post about this just this morning, coincidentally enough (self link).
posted by Rumple at 8:08 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


As someone who has killed and butchered animals, I don't really find it distasteful to see them carve open/up the bodies. By the time you're dead, it's just a bunch of meat.

I imagine that the Tibetans feel the same way to some degree, plus the fact that this is just the way it's done for them.

I should have been a surgeon.
posted by tippiedog at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2010


Or a butcher.
posted by pracowity at 8:25 AM on January 24, 2010


One might recall, in particular, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present in his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called the Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents' dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it king of all.

-Herodotus, The Histories Book III, sec. 38

posted by notswedish at 8:29 AM on January 24, 2010 [15 favorites]


Philosophically, I think the sky burial is probably most in line with what I'd like for my body.

But socially, I know that funerals are largely for the bereaved. I can't imagine that my Catholic grandparents would take too kindly to that, and it'd probably be upsetting for many of the people there.

Hence, I think I'll opt for the middle ground and choose cremation and to be scattered in the woods when I get to writing my will. I become carbon in the air, and nitrogen for the soil, and I guess a spoonful or so could be kept in an urn if my family really wants to keep something.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


PS: Of course, that's after the tissue donation's done.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:36 AM on January 24, 2010


mccarty.tim: I become carbon in the air

You know, this really doesn't strike me as being a very good idea for some reason.
posted by localroger at 8:55 AM on January 24, 2010


Who usually dismembered the body? A close relative or is there a professional doing the job?
posted by Carius at 8:56 AM on January 24, 2010


Suggest sidebar for Cygnet.
posted by bukvich at 9:02 AM on January 24, 2010


I partially recall some early religion that believed in the sacredness of Water, Earth, Fire, Sky. and thus when someone died it would be an insult to use any one of those elements for disposing of the body. They put a long pole in the ground, with a platform at the top, and let the birds of prey do their thing. This practice then was based on religious beliefs, which trumped concerns for aesthetic issues.
posted by Postroad at 9:05 AM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agreed re sidebar. That's one of the best comments I've seen here.
posted by Flashman at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2010


I have already begun the slow process of self mellification. My corpse is going to be delicious.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:19 AM on January 24, 2010


I like it.
posted by chance at 9:32 AM on January 24, 2010


It looked like they cut off the corpse's hair, why?

I would imagine it's because hair isn't digestible. The animals would just leave it along with the bones.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:33 AM on January 24, 2010


Mind blowing. I would imagine the Tibetan family who witnesses their loved one's body dispersed to the elements like this has a very different grieving process than we have here in US, and probably a much healthier one.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:34 AM on January 24, 2010


Tempting, really. Although I've been half-heartedly looking at a simple "bury me with no coffin, plant a tree above me" plan. Not sure I can accomplish either here in Canada however.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 9:41 AM on January 24, 2010


Veterenary use of diclofenac has decimated the vulture population in India, which has led to serious problems for the the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community, who like to use Towers of Silence to get rid of dead people.

I'm sad to realize that even if sky burial were an option for me, I'd be environmentally unsound.
posted by immlass at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2010


For anyone interested in this topic I really recommend Death to Dust, pretty much the most authoritative book on dead bodies that I have seen short of a forensic pathology text (not that I am a particular expert). This sort of leaving the body in the open to be returned to nature is a pretty widespread practice, if not exactly common. I would love for my corpse to be taken care of in such a way, but the local public health authorities would frown on it, so I'll just have to settle for cremation. For those who are squicked out by this sort of thing, it is really no worse than the things that are done to corpses in a typical embalming (apologies to coldchef and any others in the mortuary business).

Great post and comments!
posted by TedW at 9:56 AM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wouldn't mind being eaten by lammergeiers or griffon vultures (after I'm dead, of course). Maybe it would give me a shot at coming back as one.
posted by rtha at 10:17 AM on January 24, 2010


Griffon vultures are people!
posted by Artw at 10:21 AM on January 24, 2010


Griffon vultures

Heck, I want to be eaten by griffons when I die. To this end, I'm pumping billions in to chimaeric cloning research. I see no problems with giving them a taste for human flesh.

Really interesting to learn more about this. Like limeonaire, I'd seen it in Sandman but didn't really know a lot about it. The one photo in the link that shows the cut body really hammers home what a pile of meat we are.
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 10:56 AM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the thing I really like about the sky burial is that it very much does benefit others -- just non-human others. I'd be kind of down with having my body deep-fried and left for raccoons, because those dudes are completely excellent.

No, no....hell no

Raccoons are disturbingly intelligent, devious and resourceful. Now you want to teach them that we humans are succulent and delicious?
posted by uri at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


There's a lovely poem by Robinson Jeffers on the wish-fulfillment end of this conversation.

Vulture
I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you." But how beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him.
To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:36 AM on January 24, 2010 [27 favorites]


Jessamyn West [the other one] has written a short story called "Up a Tree" about a woman who commits suicide in a sort of similar fashion [takes pills, is eaten by birds before the family finds her]. It was a truly weird story for its time [late 60s early 70s I think?] and upon rereading it seems more and more sensible.
posted by jessamyn at 11:48 AM on January 24, 2010


A friend of mine had two pet peeves that were just about the finest pet peeves I've ever heard: graveyards and golf courses, the remolding of the land into the natural equivalent of a Ken doll.

Anything that doesn't involve people taking anything more away from nature than they have already is a-okay with me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:52 AM on January 24, 2010


The Iroquois (and Neutrals) of the eastern woodlands also had burial platforms. I believe bodies would be stored during the winter and put on the platforms for the spring arrival of the turkey vultures. The bones would be gathered in late fall and I think those would be buried in a common grave outside the village.

We have become so distant from our dead (converting our parlours into living rooms and having viewings in Funeral Parlours) that customs requiring us to touch our dead seem very disquieting. I've been around a lot of death and am not squeamish; yet I can't imagine carving the body of someone I love.
posted by saucysault at 12:16 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The skin and muscle are slashed like that to allow the rather weak beaks and
talons of vultures to get through the skin.

If this is not done, then the vultures eat all the soft parts very completely (lips,
tongue, anus, and probably udders, bag, and testicles if they were exposed),
and be unable to make much progress on anything else. The results look exactly
like an alien "cattle mutilation".

One reason for the dismemberment of the body at the large joints is to break
the carcass up. If the body is slashed, but not dismembered, then the vultures
will eat it so quickly that the tendons that hold the skeleton together are
undisturbed by either vulture or rot, and the skeleton stays articulated for a
surprisingly long time.

The head is quite problematic for vultures. They are completely defeated by the
skull, and as a result the contents are untouched. I read somewhere else on the
web that the skull is opened and the contents fed to something that wants to
eat it.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:19 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love the no-i'm-more-open-to-eastern-ideas-about-death posturing thing going on
posted by tehloki at 12:38 PM on January 24, 2010



I love the no-i'm-more-open-to-eastern-ideas-about-death posturing thing going on


What do you mean?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:40 PM on January 24, 2010


I love the no-i'm-more-open-to-eastern-ideas-about-death posturing thing going on

I live on the east coast and I actually care little for the open casket/fire and brimstone eulogy/really expensive real estate ideas about death that predominate here. The folks on the west coast seem a lot more open to other, more reasonable ideas to me.
posted by TedW at 1:11 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


LucretiusJones, I don't read poetry as much as I did back in college, but your post makes me want to. That was wonderful.

As someone who has killed and butchered animals, I don't really find it distasteful to see them carve open/up the bodies. By the time you're dead, it's just a bunch of meat.

That attitude reminds me of some old friends who spent a large part of their lives hunting and fishing in Alaska. Their father (who I had also known most of my life) died in the hospital after heart surgery and as is usual in that situation got a round of open cardiac massage. His youngest son went in to see the body in the ICU, and felt an uncontrollable urge to look under the blankets into his father's open chest. I have seen a lot of dead bodies, including my own father's, but I am not sure I could go there.

Finally, from the original post:
All funerals are sad and creepy, but they’re way better than feeding the corpse to a bunch of hungry eagles.
I have to wonder if that person has actually been to a funeral.
posted by TedW at 1:23 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I plan to have myself cremated and then for my ashes to be flung in the faces of various people I have disagreed with on Metafilter.
posted by Ritchie at 2:05 PM on January 24, 2010 [20 favorites]


Barring that, you could also have yourself hollowed out and made into a piñata. When all the funeral attendees arrive, your colorfully tissue-papered corpse drops from the cieling at the end of a rope, and pages hand out sticks to everyone. As for candy and prizes, I recommend butterscotch. Everyone loves butterscotch.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:11 PM on January 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


Energetically beating a corpse with sticks does seem like a funeral tradition that Metafilterians would take to.
posted by Ritchie at 2:21 PM on January 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


That's it. I'm scheduling a meetup for when I die. We'll gather at whatever Northeastern restaurant is okay with hanging a corpse from the rafters, so that limits us to Chuck E. Cheese or Applebee's.
posted by mccarty.tim at 2:42 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here is an essay on the burning ghats or funerary pyres of the Indian holy city, Varanasi. The ashes to be put into the Ganges, holiest of rivers.
posted by jadepearl at 2:45 PM on January 24, 2010


A friend & climbing partner of mine tried to do just this, in the mountains of Banff National Park. He was found though. (I hadn't seen him for years, just heard this news second-hand).
posted by Flashman at 2:56 PM on January 24, 2010


Sorry for the possibly troll-seeming comment, I just can't read a thread where about 10 people post a response to somebody saying they're grossed out by seeing a corpse being eaten by vultures with some variant of "western norms for death are silly, I don't care what happens to my corpse" without making some kind of snarky dismissal. It just seems to me like many people who hold these ideas during life end up having a standard embalmed-corpse-with-makeup funeral anyway. Sorry for the toss-off.
posted by tehloki at 3:34 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


>
You make a good point. That's why it's good for people to talk these things out with their families and get a proper will made.

And it's a free country. If people are grossed out by more natural burials, I accept that, even though I don't agree with them. No snark. I just think it's weird to be embalmed with chemicals and buried in a wooden/steel and plastic box when I'm going to be away from humans anyway. I'd rather return to nature either through cremation and scattering or burial in a forest. That's what some people like, though, so I'm not going to stop them or ridicule them beyond stating my feelings.

Speaking of which, here's a video from Good Magazine about the business of death. It's an interesting thing to watch, no matter what your stance on how a funeral should be.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2010


For anyone interested in this topic I really recommend Death to Dust, pretty much the most authoritative book on dead bodies that I have seen short of a forensic pathology text (not that I am a particular expert)

I used to work in a large university library. Yes, there is a pathology textbook entitled Gunshot Wounds. Literally the pathology of gunshot wounds, including photos. I looked in that book exactly once.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2010


I've always wanted my lifeless corpse to be disposed of like this. I don't like the thought of being buried underground or being burned. I find it comforting thinking about the open sky and the birds coming to eat me.
posted by clockbound at 3:55 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


It just seems to me like many people who hold these ideas during life end up having a standard embalmed-corpse-with-makeup funeral anyway. Sorry for the toss-off.

Most of us don't have much control over it; I'm not Catholic, I don't believe in God or an afterlife, I find graveyards revolting, but if I dropped dead tomorrow I'd probably have a funeral in a church and a gravestone and the whole deal.

I don't think we get to choose that much about what happens to what's left of us, we drop over and everyone sort of just leaves it to whoever's grieving most.

So in a weird way, it's this very intimate thing, but it doesn't belong to us as much as those who survive us and what comforts them.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:58 PM on January 24, 2010


The other thing with the western funeral process is just how damn expensive it is.
For embalming they charge you through the nose.
posted by Flashman at 4:00 PM on January 24, 2010


Energetically beating a corpse with sticks does seem like a funeral tradition that Metafilterians would take to.

It would have to be a dead horse, though.
posted by stargell at 4:00 PM on January 24, 2010


Oddly, I am way less okay with the Varanasi ghats than I am with sky burial. There's something so horribly distinct about the smell of burning human flesh - weirdly familiar yet confusing to place the first time you smell it, and impossible to forget once you realize what it is. The initial horror is about eleventy million times worse if you were innocently hungry prior to your discovery.
posted by elizardbits at 4:06 PM on January 24, 2010


I partially recall some early religion that believed in the sacredness of Water, Earth, Fire, Sky. and thus when someone died it would be an insult to use any one of those elements for disposing of the body. They put a long pole in the ground, with a platform at the top, and let the birds of prey do their thing. This practice then was based on religious beliefs, which trumped concerns for aesthetic issues.

That makes a lot of sense if you live in a place like Tibet, where the ground is too rocky for graves and there aren't a lot of trees around to use up on burning a person. Those religious beliefs evolving seems pretty natural.

I also agree with clockbound - I like the sentiment. It seems like a nice gesture. A lot like cremation and scattering the ashes.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:19 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]



I witnessed a sky burial in Tibet in 2004.


I witnessed a sky burial in China in 2002. It was in mid-west Sichuan, straddling the Gansu border. The town, Langmusi, was very small, but had two competing Tibetan Monestaries - one in Sichuan, the other in Gansu. They apparently had basketball tournaments every once in a while, and got along fairly well.

The town is somewhat known for having sky burials. Chinese tourists travel to it for exactly this reason. When I went, I was there for about 2-3 days, and when we arrived we asked at a small tea house/restaurant if there would be any during that time period. They said "of course!" and sold us tickets! There wouldn't be one today, they said, but they were sure something would come up for the weekend. Friday night they told us to wake up early, they were bringing someone in for Saturday.

Saturday morning we got up, trekked out to the site, had our tickets stamped and then we waited. Four large vultures were on a far hill, waiting as well. Chinese tourists came along by the dozen. There was a group of about 60 or so tourists, all with ridiculously large cameras, waiting on the hill, taking preliminary shots of the birds. After about 30 minutes, a van pulled up, and they took out the corpse, wrapped in a sheet of plastic. It had been folded and refrigerated, and so when they took it out they needed to crack it to get it to lie flat. That sound, the cracking of the body, still sticks with me.

After a while, the people coordinating the event came over, and discussed a few things - that the man had died on Monday, but that they had kept the body till Saturday to get more of a crowd, and that the birds were too afraid to come any closer b/c of the large turnout. After 15 minutes of the birds doing nothing, they shooed us to a farther hill, and the birds eventually came down to eat. They didn't chop it up or anything, they just uncovered it.

I couldn't look - the whole thing was too gruesome. I don't know what I had been expecting - probably something closer to Cygnet's experience above - but there was something very unsettling about a) having gone there for this purpose b) watching it (having paid money to see it) and c) being one of about 60-70 people on a hill, all snapping away and chatting amongst themselves while a body of a man was being eaten by vultures. I found it difficult to stay, and left early.

I do, however, still have the ticket, by far the most unique and disquieting ticket I bought in China. It is mainly a shot of the birds eating away at a corpse, but on the right side is the price - 10 RMB - and the stamp I got for going.
posted by Curiosity Delay at 5:07 PM on January 24, 2010 [28 favorites]


Somehow I'd never heard of Varanasi until I read this book review of Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.
Then I pretty much went straight out and bought the book. It's odd, very funny, and wonderful
posted by Flashman at 5:10 PM on January 24, 2010


If you live near a medical school I think you can still donate your body to be used as a teaching cadaver. I filled out the paper work to do it 20 years ago and at that time it was pretty simple. You had the choice to have your body returned to your family for burial or cremated by the school and your heirs could pay an extra fee to have a brass plaque put up in the courtyard thanking you for your donation. You could also still donate your eyes but the rest of your organs had to remain with your body since the students need them for study. You do have to make sure your family understands that this is what you want and make sure to appoint an executor who will honor you wishes.
Actually I would really love to be displayed in The Smithsonian with my dog by my side but I guess it's already been done.
posted by BoscosMom at 5:18 PM on January 24, 2010


For medium gross discussion of dead bodies without anything that will particularly scar you for life there's always Stiff by Mary Roach.
posted by Artw at 5:23 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The sky burial seems to me to be just another form of a green burial. Many people are looking for way to leave this earth with more of a natural impact than traditional western burial.

Westerners are (finally) coming to terms with the environmental waste of cemeteries, emblaming and coffins -- and even rejecting cremation for the high energy use.

Obviously, Tibet has limitations in their choices for disposal of their dead (weather, rocky environment, lack of fuel for cremation, etc.) Their solution is quite reasonable.

I, personally, like the idea of a 'burial at sea' (thin white shroud, rocks to sink my body) since our water is a mile deep offshore. I like the idea of returning to my element. My children said they are thinking of making it a cruise ("glass bottom boat?")

... but, no selling tickets ...
posted by Surfurrus at 7:08 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


MrTaff's father died last year (the day before BabyTaff was born) and he went to India for the end of the prayers which last 40 days. In the Himalayan foothills, Tibetans seem to do open air cremation more than anything else. Maybe they don't have the right kind of birds, I've never thought to ask MrTaff.

MrTaff is a Bön, not a Buddhist, although many rituals are the same.

Once he arrived in Dolanji he was told that his father's bones needed to be ground to be mixed in to small religious sculptures. He told me of the hours of hard physical labour it took to grind the bones of a small 80 something year old man.. how his mum had taken him aside and shown him the rocks to use while she was making food for the house full of monks who were praying day and night for those 40 days.

As the oldest son, it was his duty and privilege to grind his father's bones... but he did tell me of his small disquiet. (He hadn't seen his father in two years.) MrTaff has been to a lot of funerals in exile, and helped me prepare my mother's body when she died four years ago... he's prepared so many bodies in his life, he can't remember how many. Even very young people help in the Tibetan community... they teach that death is part of life very early.

He was so composed about it all, so dignified and so strong.

Just bathing my own mother's body was very hard, even though MrTaff helped me. And now I'm so pleased that crematoria in Australia have bone grinders and that I didn't have to know that fact until after MrTaff explained that cremation doesn't turn bones to ash.
posted by taff at 7:19 PM on January 24, 2010 [13 favorites]


Contemplation of death, one's own rotting corpse, the decaying remains of those people one is attached to, are essential elements of Buddhist meditation on the impermanent nature of reality and comprehending that there is no permanent or inherently existing Self. A serene little video clip of the preliminary to a sky burial.

The opportunity to see a sky-burial (jha-tor in Tibetan) would be considered not only a privilege but an important experience in one's spiritual development.

Vultures are considered to be the king of the birds by Tibetans, symbols of transcendent wisdom, not just because they fly so high but for the very reason that they feast on human carrion. The Himalayan Griffon Vulture, ferocious and regal.

Tsampa, the Tibetan staple food, a mixture of barley flour, tea and yak butter, is what is added to the brain and chopped-up bones to make them palatable to the birds.

A green burial place in NY State, Greensprings.
posted by nickyskye at 9:24 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't get all the cemetary hate. The one by my house is over a hundred years old, has amazing old trees and provides multiple faucets so filling up water guns is easier during water fights. It is the best place I know to play hide and seek and there is so much local history to explore.
posted by saucysault at 10:52 PM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Saucysault, I'm not sure whether I want to pinch your cheek or put you over my knee and spank you.
posted by taff at 11:37 PM on January 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't get all the cemetary hate.
I agree. Spent much of my childhood playing in country churchyards and later on had a job for a while as part of an architectural survey of Saxon fabric in old church buildings in the Cotswolds, which involved being dropped off by van at one after another extremely pretty village and perching on a tombstone to sketch the bricked-up remains of an archway in the church wall and similar. I think sunshine, lazy day, bumblebees and long grass.
Also had a few teenage fumbles in similar venues, but I'll spare us the details there.
posted by Abiezer at 1:14 AM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Undertaker: Well, there's three things we can do with your mum. We can bury her, burn her, or dump her.
Man: Dump her?
Undertaker: Dump her in the Thames.
Man: What?
Undertaker: Oh, did you like her?
Man: Yes!
Undertaker: Oh well, we won't dump her, then. Well, what do you think? We can bury her or burn her.
Man: Well, which do you recommend?
Undertaker: Well, they're both nasty. If we burn her, she gets stuffed in the flames, crackle, crackle, crackle, which is a bit of a shock if she's not quite dead, but quick. And then we give you handful of ashes, which you can pretend are hers.
Man: Oh.
Undertaker: Or, if we bury her she gets eaten up lots of weevils, and nasty maggots, which as I said before is a bit of a shock if she's not quite dead.

Of course it all leads up to

Undertaker: Look, tell you what, we'll eat her, if you feel a bit guilty about it after, we can dig a grave and you can throw up in it.
posted by Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific at 5:55 AM on January 25, 2010


The tree idea is good for cycling the elements. But the average (western at least) human is quite loaded down with toxins and may have prions so your being fed to mammals would keep mammalian prions in circulation. Fish don't seem to suffer from exposure to mammalian prions and mammals don't seem to suffer from fish prions so a cycle of maggots -> fish -> other humans would break the prion cycle as would maggots -> biodiesel.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:05 AM on January 25, 2010


The Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead.
[a man puts a body on the cart]
Large Man with Dead Body: Here's one.
The Dead Collector: That'll be ninepence.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not dead.
The Dead Collector: What?
Large Man with Dead Body: Nothing. There's your ninepence.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not dead.
The Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man with Dead Body: Yes he is.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not.
The Dead Collector: He isn't.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm getting better.
Large Man with Dead Body: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
The Dead Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I don't want to go on the cart.
Large Man with Dead Body: Oh, don't be such a baby.
The Dead Collector: I can't take him.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I feel fine.
Large Man with Dead Body: Oh, do me a favor.
The Dead Collector: I can't.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long.
The Dead Collector: I promised I'd be at the Robinsons'. They've lost nine today.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, when's your next round?
The Dead Collector: Thursday.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I think I'll go for a walk.
Large Man with Dead Body: You're not fooling anyone, you know. Isn't there anything you could do?
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I feel happy. I feel happy.
[the Dead Collector glances up and down the street furtively, then silences the Body with his a whack of his club]
Large Man with Dead Body: Ah, thank you very much.
The Dead Collector: Not at all. See you on Thursday.
Large Man with Dead Body: Right.
posted by bwg at 7:23 AM on January 25, 2010


Maybe it's just me, but I can't see how this is more gross than embalming a body, dressing it and putting makeup on it, having everyone look at the dressed up and embalmed body,

Oh, word. I have made anyone who may ever be in a position to arrange my funeral brutally aware that if they dare EMBALM ME, I will haunt them in strange and unpleasant ways.

I don't know about sky burial - something about it seems like it would hurt. Now, duh, I know I'd be dead - but still, all those birds pecking at you? Yeouch. Strangely, I have no issue with cremation. My mind works in totally irrational ways.

Me? I want the type of funeral in the end of Six Feet Under: wrapped in a bag, thrown into a hole in the ground. I make no posturing about the environment or Western funerary practices or whatever - I just get squicked out by the idea of my body being pumped full of formaldehyde and caked in makeup.

Funerals, though, are for the living and not the actual deceased person - who, being deceased, presumably is beyond caring. Ultimately, it'll be whatever my future offspring or other surviving kin decide. I hope they like me enough not to give me an open casket send-off, because man, that would piss me off from beyond the grave.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:12 AM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Again, I feel compelled to mention my father's wish to be stuffed and mounted, upright, like a roaring grizzly bear and left that way to terrify future descendants.

Me, I like the idea of freeze-drying the Swedish way (thanks, Mary Roach -- this was in Stiff, too)!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:35 PM on January 25, 2010


Shameless self link about an Indian cremation I chose not to go to.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:48 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


So friends, when my time comes as surely it will
You just carry my body out to some lonesome hill
And lay me down easy where the cool rivers run
With only my mountains 'tween me and the sun
(townes van zandt)
posted by notsnot at 7:43 PM on January 26, 2010


My aunt's friend lives in Bombay by the Parsee fire temple. She told me stories of walking out into her balcony to find a single toe or an earlobe, shrivelled and pale.

Nowadays, with the vulture population in Bombay dwindling, the Parsees use giant mirrors to reflect the sun onto the corpse.
posted by vostok at 3:09 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of a home made video I saw of a cremation in Indonesia. Two logs were strung back and forth with baling wire, and the corpse was supported by that over a small fire. As the body roasted the black bits were knocked off by people sitting around with pointy sticks. I think the idea was to conserve firewood.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:43 PM on February 14, 2010


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