Final Frontier

It’s a jawbone, the crunch beneath my hiking boot. A HUMAN JAWBONE! And there are still teeth attached. It is a grizzly reminder of why I’m here and to distract myself I focus on the colourful strings of prayer flags flapping around me. These hold my gaze momentarily, but then I notice the vultures circling above. They are here for the same reason I am, only I suspect that they are a little more excited at the prospect of a dead body.
I am on the outskirts of Litang, a remote town of 40,000 people sitting in the western part of Sichuan province that rubs up against the Tibetan border and shares much of its landscape and culture. The 4,000m altitude chafes my lungs with each greedy breath but the high tableland scenery makes up for the effort. Here on the edge of town the vast treeless plains spread out before me like a lush grassy carpet. Sharp mountains punctuate the distant horizon and it is not hard to see why this is such an auspicious place. This is where the sky burials happen.
A Buddhist-Tibetan tradition, sky burials involve the consumption of the dead body by vultures and have both a spiritual and a practical purpose. After death the body is no longer of importance as the soul has departed. Feeding the corpse to vultures is a final act of generosity by the dead and is known in Tibetan as jhator, literally “giving alms to the birds”. Practically it is a means of disposing of corpses in a region where wood is too scarce for cremations and rocky and often frozen ground rules out earthly burials.
Monks arrive on foot and introduce me to the deceased’s great nephew. It is not customary for family to attend burials but I am told that this boy, looking no older than his late teens, has accompanied the body from inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region a few hundred kilometres away. The body itself arrives in the back of a truck, wrapped in white cloth. I sit and watch at a further distance than the others, unsure of how I will react to the evisceration of a human body.
From nowhere a new figure appears and strides towards the corpse. A stocky middle aged man dressed in a long white paper skirt, he has been readying himself and cleaning his axe in the nearby stream. The number of vultures circling above seems to increase with his presence. This is the rogyapas, literally the “body breaker”.
With a knife he removes the corpse’s scalp and this, along with the cloth that the body has been wrapped in, is burned. Cuts are carved into the corpse’s flesh, I’m told to make it easier for the vultures to devour.
The rogyapas steps away, and before he has moved more than a metre the corpse is engulfed by a black mass of vultures. They yank at the body, emerging with pink bloody plumes. Some fly off with their spoils while others bicker for a share.
Once the vultures have started on the body the gravity of the ritual appears to dissolve. The mourners walk over to sit with me and offer tea from their thermoses. We make small talk in broken sentences and sign language and they chatter and joke amongst themselves. It is as if their duty to the dead has been completed and the wheel of life has turned onwards.
Less than 5 minutes elapse before the rogyapas shoos the feasting vultures away. Undeterred by their size and aggression he is calm and appears to be following a well-worn routine. When the corpse returns to view it has been stripped almost clean to the bone.
The back of an axe is used to pound the bone and remaining flesh, which is mixed with barley meal to form a mound of pink pulp and left for the vultures. Care is taken that every trace of the body is broken down as it would be unlucky for anything to remain.
In under an hour nothing is left of the deceased at all. The body has been returned to nature and in the minds of the funeral guests the spirit has moved on. In contrast to the trepidation I felt earlier, I am left with a feeling of peace. Some part of the fear of death has melted away in me and I feel that I have glimpsed a different kind of frontier in this frontier town.

M Jaques

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