Dying Differently — Can Old Ways to Die Help Us Find New Ways to Live?
A procession makes its way along a high ridge in the mountains. Dressed in bright colors, a group of Buddhist mourners beat hand-held drums by turning them side to side in rhythm. The steady plok-plok is accompanied by the ringing of bells and the singing of chants that echo in the thin air of high altitude.
Above them, as if in expectation, soar a host of griffin-vultures. This slow-marching party and its feathered heralds head for a sacred cliff at the roof of the world; for this is Tibet, and this is a sky burial.
For most Westerners, the idea of leaving remains for hungry birds is unnerving. In the U.S., death tends to be clinical, tidy, followed by a viewing and funeral service at a place specially made for the purpose. Friends and relatives fly in, gathering together for grief, for remembrance, and often for a meal.
But the Covid-19 pandemic changed this. The pandemic and its virulence meant no gathering, no sharing. It meant attempting to process a funeral from afar, over Zoom. It meant being unable to perform those last basic rituals we’ve come to associate with saying goodbye.
What do these changes mean for us now and ongoing? I’ve been asked about this a lot in the past year — interviewed for Jodi Kantor’s piece on changing funerals for the New York Times, and speaking to NPR’s Tonya Mosley on Here and Now about how we can cope.
I think there is much to learn, in particular, from funeral traditions from other parts of the world. Funeral rites have been a part of human communities for a very long time —sky burial for around 11,000 years — but as a social practice, they can change as situations change. Looking at death and grief across cultures can provide a roadmap for coping with our strange new realities post-pandemic.
I first encountered “sky burial” while writing Death’s Summer Coat. In Tibet, Buddhists have a tradition of ritually dissecting the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to waiting vultures and other carrion birds. The practice agrees with…