A Disturbing Death Ritual

<i> Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). E-mail: </i>

A startling scene occurs in Martin Scorsese’s film “Kundun.” The body of the Dalai Lama’s father is taken to a mountain top where others dismember it and feed the flesh to hovering vultures. Without some background in Tibetan Buddhism, this event disturbs and baffles.

Buddhists believe that all living creatures have feelings. Humans must look out for the welfare of other creatures, including those unattractive scavengers, vultures. From the Tibetan point of view, giving one’s body to feed these birds after death is a selfless act. It demonstrates how a person can be of some good even when dead. In addition, by feeding themselves to the vultures, they are sparing other animals from becoming the vultures’ prey.

Feeding a body to the vultures displays another Buddhist value: nonattachment. What more overt method of displaying detachment than by offering a loved one’s body as nourishment for other living things? This is the ultimate sacrifice.

Tibetan regard for all living creatures was depicted in another film, “Seven Years in Tibet.” Monks stopped construction on a theater because they wanted to protect the earthworms living in the about-to-be excavated ground. Concern for the lowly earthworms astonishes Westerners, yet it strongly illuminates Buddhist beliefs in the interdependence of all living creatures. Compassion for the earthworms also relates to their belief in reincarnation and the possibility that at one time, the earthworms might have been family members.


For more information on Tibetan culture, contact the L.A. and Orange County Friends of Tibet: (714)726-8828.