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The Nomadic Kiwi

How to Dispose of a Dead Monk's Body

CHINA | Sunday, 20 April 2014 | Views [2123] | Comments [2] | Scholarship Entry

I had never crashed a funeral before.
Despite my respectful distance and the welcoming waves from invited guests, I still felt uneasy -though perhaps that had more to do with the macabre spectacle that I was witnessing.
In the valley below, the funeral party sat around a fire, the frigid morning air trapping the smoke in a silken veil that hung over the scene.
Three scarlet-robed monks sat chanting a haunting prayer in deep tenor. The shrill and unsettling ‘thwack’ of butchers’ knives against bone provided an eerie percussion track to their song.
Nearby, on a lofty hillside, dozens of tall, muscular vultures surveyed the scene, waiting patiently for their breakfast.Others flew in to join them, lured by the scent of burning incense and the aroma of yak’s blood. Their immense wingspans cast vast shadows across the grassy plateau, blocking the warm morning sun as they soared overhead.
This was a sky burial -an ancient Tibetan funeral carried out in frozen, treeless lands where cremation and interment are unfeasible. Buddhists believe the body is merely a vessel that transports the soul from one life to the next, so this is not a normal funeral in the traditional Western sense. Rather, it is a simple, functional affair meant only to dispose of the now-soulless body in the most efficient way possible.
While two of the butchers hacked at the bloody body of a yak, a third -the ‘tomden’- removed a shroud from the naked, withered corpse of a dead man -a monk from the local monastery. Drawing a knife, he carved into the lifeless body with surgical precision. He tossed chunks of flesh towards the hungry birds, enticing them to come and feast.
In no time, the fifty-strong flock had descended on the body, obscuring it in a violent frenzy of feathers and flesh. In just a few stomach-churning minutes, the corpse was torn apart -stripped free of flesh until but a carcass remained.
The birds were then lured to the meat of the yak, allowing the tomden to crush the remaining bones to mulch that could easily be digested and taken to the skies.
Shell-shocked, I silently snuck away as the sickening sound of the tomden’s hammer shattering bone against rock resonated around me.
Later, lost in contemplation, I let my thoughts wander away far across the Himalayan peaks to Lhasa or maybe Thimpu, a newborn baby was opening his eyes and seeing his mother for the first time. I smiled as I wondered if she had any idea that the infant crying in her arms was once a holy man from Litang.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip



Great story. Particularly like the rebirth.

  moresbbb Apr 25, 2014 8:42 AM


Loved your fascinating story. A true traveler's encounter. Love your descriptions. Nice one.

I've always been fascinated with 'the end' and how different cultures and religions play out their rituals - so your story was even more interesting.

  thebluegnu May 27, 2014 2:22 AM

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