Tibetans strongly believe in life after death and reincarnation, therefor death is considered one if not the most important transition in the life of a Tibetan. The way in which someone dies and then which burial ritual is performed for their body is thought to directly affect how they are re-birthed into their new life. During their lifetime Tibetans go through and perform many rituals to cleanse the soul for reincarnation. To cleanse the soul in order to ascend and for a more beneficial rebirth into their new life is the highest priority.
A funeral or burial ritual is their last chance to secure and be granted a beneficial reincarnation. Families do not grieve upon the passing of a loved one and it is so important to be able to give someone the best send off families will do anything, even beg on the streets, to be able to afford the perfect burial.
Immediately after death the majority of bodies are wrapped in white cloth and placed in the corner of the room for three to five days. The families create a space of peace to invite spiritual and sacred space for the departing. It is said to release any negative karma and only allow the good karma to follow them into the next life. They will also invite a religious professional or lama to recite the death rites to allow the soul to easily leave the physical body and guide them to a positive rebirth.
The following are five burial rituals still carried out in Tibet;
Sky Burial - sky burials are one of the most popular funerals for Tibetan commoners. On a chosen lucky day the family will undress the body and place it in the fetal position. A body carrier will collect the body and carry it up the mountain. The body carriers sing and laugh as they believe the lightheartedness will help guide the soul to their next life. The body is then placed on a platform, scoured or chopped up. Smoke signals signify their is a body and then it is devoured by vultures and other scavengers. It is said that the vultures carry the body and soul directly to heaven. The physical body does not carry any significance once the soul has departed. If their are any remains the body carriers smash up the bones and mix it with barley to feed to the birds as a broth. The ritual should not be attended by strangers or family members.
Stupa Burial - stupas are a religious monument and sacred sites reserved for the burials of the highest and noblest of Tibetan monks. The body is prepared by embalming, dehydrating and wrapping in clothes or silks and is placed in the stupa with the finest of offerings. Spices, herbs and gold flakes are used. The bodies remain in the stupas to be worshiped. The size and style of the monument is based on the ranking of the deceased and can range from very large and elaborate to small and simple.
Fire Burial - fire burials or cremations are the next burial rituals used for high ranking monks and officials. Also this burial ritual is carried out for commoners in areas where there are a lot of trees in the surrounding countryside. The body is seated on a stack of wood and straw and burned. The ashes of the deceased are collected and used in clay monuments or spread into the wind or rivers. Some monk's ashes on occasion are kept to be worshiped.
Water Burial - water burial is used for those of lesser class or when sky burial is not available. The body is wrapped in sacred white cloth and placed into the river where it will drift down stream. Sometimes the body is cut up before hand as in sky burial so the fish can consume the body. Normally this burial follows a strict set of rules to keep it a sacred event.
Tree Burial - tree burial is often reserved for the passing of infants to small children only as their bodies are small and light. The body is placed in a small coffin or wooden box and hung in a tree in a remote forest. The body is normally first cleansed with salt water and placed into the fetal position. Some trees will hold only one or two coffins where others can be seen to carry more than fifty. As with sky burial it is believed the body is closer to heaven and therefor the spirit will more easily be able to be reincarnated.
Although these rituals seem quite different from ours they are carried out with joy and happiness. The bodies are not grieved for as the Tibetans believe that the souls have reincarnated and will be reborn into a new and better life. Particularly with children the belief is that the passing of one has prevented the passing of another. Their lives are celebrated with hope and recognition of their reincarnation into a better world.