Eating the dead

We have discussed the idea of giving your body to an institution once you have passed, such as medical schools or other medical institutions. We have talked about giving our bodies back to the earth, with natural burials, but what about actually feeding another living thing?

The Wari

During the 1950s, the Wari’ (pronounced wha-REE), who now number at about 2,000, became one of the last native tribes in the world to be contacted by outsiders. They were a Middle Horizon civilisation that flourished in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about AD 500 to 1000.

One thing that separated the Wari from other tribes was their penchant for cannibalism. Not only would they feast on their enemies but they would also eat their own, as part of their funeral practices. Although it was one of the main focuses of the tribe, the practice was methodically stamped out by Christian missionaries in the 1960’s.

How it works

It is rare to find insider and outsider cannibalism rife in a singular tribe, as the motivations for each act were different. When they ate an enemy, it was a way of marking dominance over their victim.

While the Wari would enjoy eating their enemies, roasting them and enjoying the kill with the whole village, much like the celebration of a big game hunt. When they ate their own it was very much the opposite. The tribe members eat the flesh of the dead out of respect, believing that they can absorb the loved one’s wisdom through the ritual.

The funerary cannibalism was the beginning of the emotional healing they needed after the death of a tribesperson. The end game of a Wari funeral was to erase all reminders of the person that had died. They would not speak the name of the person who had just died and they would burn their house down, along with their possessions. During the three days of mourning, while the body was decaying and the mourning was reaching its peak, the in-laws of the deceased would cut the body up, cook and eat it.

Sky Burials

Technically, a sky burial isn’t even a burial, and if we had to split hairs, it isn’t even in the sky either. It’s the act of leaving a corpse exposed to the elements, normally in the mountains or other elevated location (Okay). It is not a popular method, but it is a fascinating one, that actually makes a lot of sense

Often referred to as “celestial burial”, a sky burial is a practice of some Tibetan Buddhists. By leaving the body exposed, to be eaten by vultures, it represents the transition to heaven.

How it works

When a Tibetan dies, their corpse is wrapped in a white cloth, then placed in the corner of the house for three to five days while Lamas read scripture, so that the soul can be released from purgatory. The family will attempt to create a peaceful environment for the body in order to allow a smooth passage for the deceased’s soul to go to heaven.

The family chooses a day. It is supposed to be a day that they consider lucky. On the day before the burial, the family remove the white cloth and fix the body into a fetal position. On the dawn of the lucky day, the ‘body carrier’ will take the corpse to the burial site. Then a ‘body breaker’ will hack and chop the body into vulture-friendly size.

“Su” or smoke, is burned to attract birds of prey while Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul.

Why?

Sky burials are fundamental in the belief of Tibetan Buddhists. They believe that a body must one free of sin before it can travel to the afterlife. If the vultures come and eat the body, it means that the dead has no sin and that his or her soul has gone peacefully to the Paradise. The Tibetans see the vultures as Dakinis, angel-like creatures who take soul into the heavens to await reincarnation and the next life — the body a mere vessel for the soul.

Logistically ski burials are the only viable option. Most of Tibet is above the tree line and the lack of wood for fires makes cremation and economic impossibility. A traditional burial is also out the question since there are only a few centimetres of earth that aren’t affected by permafrost.

In the UK, these methods are illegal. Which raises the question, why? When does your corpse stop being us? The fact there are laws surrounding what can happen to your body suggests that there is an accepted knowledge that ‘we’ leave our bodies once we pass away. It seems like we have even less of an input on what we can do with our bodies than a tribe removed from society.

If you are looking to get a bit of ‘you’ back into your death, then check out our funeral planning page for useful information.

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