Celestial Burial

By: Song Shuhong, Tibet from all Angles
Updated: June 05, 2018

Funeral customs of Tibet have been deeply affected by Tibetan Buddhism or the Bon religion.   There are many funeral modes adopted by different ethnic groups such as inhumation, cremation, stupa burial, celestial burial, water burial, cliff burial, tree burial, stone coffin burial and multi-person burial, related to both culture and different historical periods. Among them, celestial burial plays the dominant role. In the minds of Tibetan people, “heaven” occupies a lofty position as an idealized paradise. Tibetan Buddhism thinks that celestial burial complies with the spirit of “saving the tiger by sacrificing himself” in the biography of Sakyamuni. The soul of the dead can rise to heaven with the eagle. 


The corpse will be wrapped in a white cloth, and kept for one or several days during which time invited monks will chant scriptures to release the soul from purgatory, and also determine an auspicious burial date. During this period, a red pottery jar will be hung on the door. This is filled with food for the soul. On the right day, family members will move the corpse to the celestial burial platform. During the procession, those carrying the corpse and the mourners are not allowed to look back. On the way, the red pottery jar will be broken. Family members are not allowed near the celestial burial platform. After the celestial burial master places the corpse on the platform, the burial assistant will kindle the fire.


As the aromatic smoke rises, eagles will gather on the nearby mountains, waiting to feed. The celestial burial master will separate the bones of friends also show little sadness for the same reason.  


Celestial burial is the common funeral custom of Tibetan people, and protected by national laws. The People's Government of the TAR has issued many regulations prohibiting certain activities at a celestial burial site including onlooking, photography and film recording. The celestial burial platform and “eagles” are also protected.