In Tibet, the rocky terrain makes the creation of tombs expensive and labour-intensive, so traditionally, only the wealthy or most important monks are entombed. "Sky burial proved to be the most efficient way of disposing of the bodies without leaving them to rot or become mummified in the dry, cold wind of the mountains" (1). In sky burial, corpses are butchered by rogyapas or domdens (body breakers) in the hours around dawn. There appear to be a few ways in which this is done, but in one practice, the bones are crushed and then mixed with flour. When this is done, the chopped body parts are exposed to the elements to feed vultures, ravens, and kites. It is considered a generous and noble final act of feeding the birds, and the birds in these areas depend "almost exclusively on human flesh for their diets" (1). This act of generosity on the part of the deceased is referred to as jhator, or "giving alms to the birds" (2).
Domden carrying a corpse for the vultures (3).
The sokushinbutsu were followers of shugendō, an ancient Japanese form of Buddhism. To become sokushinbutsu was to transform oneself into a holy relic by practicing an extreme form of asceticism. For three years, a monk would eat a special diet of nothing but nuts and seeds while partaking in rigourous physical activity in order to strip themselves of body fat. This accomplished, they would eat nothing but bark and roots for another three years, and begin drinking a poisonous tea made from the roots of the urushi tree. This caused vomiting and rapid dehydration, and the toxins killed off any maggots which might cause post-mortem decay.
Next, the monk locked himself inside a stone tomb barely larger than his body where he would remain in lotus position. "Each day, he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed" (4).
Three years later, the tombs would be unsealed and the bodies examined. "If they had not mummified, an exorcism was performed and the bodies were simply reburied. If they had been preserved, the bodies were redressed in priestly robes and then displayed as objects of worship in special temple halls. They were known as sokushinbutsu (Living Buddhas), because they had (supposedly) transcended the cycle of life and death" (5).
Space burial is the practice of interring human remains in orbit. They are generally performed by encapsulating cremated remains and then launching them into space on a rocket. The idea of space burial was first posited by science fiction writer Neil R. Jones in 1931. "The first space burial, Celestis' Earthview 01: The Founders Flight, was launched on April 21, 1997. An aircraft carried a modified Pegasus rocket containing samples of the remains of 24 people to an altitude of 11 km (38,000 ft) above the Canary Islands. The rocket then carried the remains into an elliptical orbit with an apogee of 578 km (359 mi) and a perigee of 551 km (342 mi), orbiting the Earth once every 96 minutes until reentry on May 20, 2002, northeast of Australia. Famous people buried on this flight included Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary" (6).
Satellites bearing cremated remains orbit for several years until burn up on reentry into Earth's atmosphere (7).
Space caskets (7)
These interment practices reveal varying amounts of information about the individuals and their culture. Sky burial is a ubiquitous practice for the region, except in notable cases. It shows a pragmatic response to death in relation to the terrain, and demonstrates a certain sense of altruism (in feeding scavengers) which would be looked upon with horror by people from other cultures. The sokushinbutsu reveal a zealous asceticism followed by a small male minority in one religious tradition. The practice is extremely difficult and rarely successful in producing a mummy. It demonstrates a noteworthy elitism of corpses. Space burial appears to be practiced primarily amongst people from first world nations. The practice suggests the deceased, or their surviving family members, have a significant disposable income and an eccentric personality.
All three of these practices are unusual by standard Canadian funerary practices.
1. Weatherford, Jack. Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive? "The End of the Modern World." Ballantine: 1994.