What is a Sky Burial?

My wife showed me this article about this Buddha statue that was recently discovered to contain a mummified monk. The article said that they thought this was an example of self-mummification–a term I was not very familiar with.

Google did its work, and I was soon perusing a handful of the most photographed examples of successful self-mummified Buddhist monks from around Japan. It’s a process called Sokushinbutsu, and it involves intense ascetic practice, a progressive restriction of nutrients leading up to the consumption of poisonous liquids to begin the embalming process. Finally, they are placed into tombs with only enough room to breathe, and are finally sealed off once the die. The hope was that they would be exhumed a few years later and be found non decayed, a sure sign their spiritual practice had been successful.

A successful example of Sokushinbutsu

As a Catholic, I’m reminded of the uncorrupted bodies of certain saints, who also show little to sometimes no signs of corruption. To my knowledge, none of these saints aimed specifically to be incorruptible in body upon death as an outward sign of their own spiritual attainment, but rather it was a blessing or gift given to us who remain as an encouragement to imitate their conduct. Perhaps there is more to this than I am aware, so I will suspend further judgement on that front.

St. Bernadette of Lourdes died in 1879, yet her body remains as pristine and fresh as if she were even now only sleeping

And while flipping through the images, I ran across graphic pictures of a Mongolian Sky Burial ritual. For those that don’t know, it’s a ceremonial dismemberment of a person’s remains to be eaten by the birds. They believe that the body is only a vessel, and once you die, the body no longer contains any essential sacred elements apart from continuing the circle of life. To prevent a person’s parts from being carried back into the village, however, they are butchered into small pieces to ensure they are fully consumed by the wildlife.

Less upsetting picture of Sky Burial for my blog

Certainly, these are heavy topics. I have seen graphic things before. Like car accidents, they always draw you in. Watching the progression of this body be dismembered from the feet up was–well, it was many things. I actually did become slightly nauseous. I think part of it is you can’t help but put yourself first in the corpses place, thinking of what that must be like to be a corpse. It’s a subrational bit of thinking, but one I think is probably pretty universal. It revealed a strong attachment I have to my own body. It’s more than just the experience of pain, but the destruction of something with great emotional power. It is my physical identity being destroyed. The visible window into who I was, lying in the grass in pieces. It’s like you are denigrating the person by revealing that, underneath it all, they were just a bunch of inflated bags and red paste.

Of course, bringing these ideas to the surface, they become organized in the air of reason.

The next part is you put yourself in place of the person performing the ceremony, and wonder how they became capable of doing something like this? At the final reflection, you admire the great service they are doing do this person and to the community. The truth of life and death that it presents, like a vivid gemstone, I attempt to take for myself in some way.

It is a heavy stone for now.


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