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Burial rite prompts us to ponder civilization

I can still recall my shocked reaction to ``Choso-no Kuni'' (Land of sky burial), a book published by Kobunsha more than 40 years ago.

On expedition in Tibet, author Jiro Kawakita, a cultural anthropologist, delved into the heart of a very alien civilization. As such, the book is better described as a pioneering work in the genre.

Particularly jolting was Kawakita's depiction of choso, or sky burial-a unique funeral ritual in which the body of the deceased is literally butchered on a large slab of stone to be fed to vultures and other birds of prey.

Great care is taken to cut up the body in such a way that ``the birds will not leave a morsel uneaten,'' writes Kawakita. The bones are pounded into tiny fragments with stone. The moment the funeral party leaves, vultures come swooping down.

Ekai Kawaguchi is believed to have been the first Japanese to enter Tibet, between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. In his ``Chibetto Ryokoki'' (Tibetan travelogue) published by Hakusuisa, Kawaguchi notes: ``I witnessed an amazing funeral, probably unknown anywhere else in the world.''

Kawaguchi's depiction of a sky burial is almost identical to Kawakita's, which suggests the unchanged permanence of this rite.

The rite itself appears gruesome, but I think it actually makes perfect sense if you believe in transmigration of the soul and reincarnation.

Sky burial could be considered a kind of aerial burial in the broad sense of the term.

In fact, it feels gloriously liberating to imagine the dead becoming parts of the birds and soaring into the sky.

Kawaguchi observes, ``Feeding the dead to the birds means releasing the soul to the winds.''

Government authorities in China's Tibet Autonomous Region have reportedly begun a drive to replace sky burial with cremation, claiming the former to be ``unhygienic'' and ``barbarous.''

In related reports, vultures are now said to be spurning human remains, which some experts suspect has something to do with accumulations of chemical substances in the human body.

What is civilization? One has to wonder.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 8(IHT/Asahi: January 9,2004) (01/09)




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