Tibetan Buddhists believe life is not over at death, but merely entering a rebirth. Monks emphasize this cyclical nature of existence to dispel the fear of death in Tibetan society and help people prepare for a new beginning. When death occurs, three forms of burial are used: cremation, water burial, and sky burial. “Sky burial” is technically not a burial, but a process in which the remains of the deceased are fed to vultures. The custom is known as jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds,” while “sky burial” is a phrase created by Europeans.
A jhator takes place at dawn in a specified location, and the deceased’s relatives remain nearby but are restricted from viewing the rite. On a large flat rock, monks or rogyapas (“body-breakers”) ritually cut the corpse into small pieces and flay the body in order to expose the soft tissue. They also beat the bones and flesh against the rock to create a pulp, which is mixed with barley flour, tea, butter, and milk. This mixture is then left for the vultures.
Tibetan monks use ritual implements and costumes made of human bone in religious ceremonies to allay the fear of death. Artists make these objects from the bones of youths who underwent sky burial. The ritual use of human bone connects the world of the living to the world of the dead and reinforces the Buddhist concept of the cyclical nature of existence.
The People’s Republic of China, which has ruled over Tibet since 1950, outlawed sky burial in the 1960s and 1970s, but allowed the resumption of the practice in the 1980s.