Another Sky Burial

While the spring migrating turkey vultures have passed through some time ago, and the fall migrators have yet to arrive, a resident population remains.  In this area there are plenty of woods for them to roost in.  So, now, in the interregnum,  I mainly see them patrolling suburbia far in the sky.

A few years ago, our friends Peter and Valerie bought several undeveloped lots up the street from us.   The house they built left plenty of space leftover, now forming  a cryptoforest  (“the only nature that does not need protecting”) that interrupts the chemically mediated grass gardens surrounding it.

And in this cryptoforest be vultures.

Peter has two massively mandibled Rhodesian Ridgebacks  contained most of the time by the fence surrounding his property.  Dutch settlers of South Africa developed this breed in the 1860’s.  The dogs’ job was to corner lions until the hunters could arrive on the scene to kill them.

So the squirrels, groundhogs and other crytpforest inhabitants are no match for Rock and Ellie.

Pete, Karen and I are aware of the Tibetan practice of sky burial. (I have written about it here).  Pete finds this an appealing method for the eventual disposition of his earthly remains.

So when Pete walks the property  to inspect the fence containing the dogs, he sometimes discovers unlucky animals they have killed.  Pete then places them in an open area for the vultures to eat.  They completely consume this carrion, leaving not even a hair on the ground.

So, given all this, I found quite interesting a series of posts by Karl Steel on the medieval studies blog In The Middle.  Here Steel writes about the European history of sky burial and similar practices.

Part of this history are accounts of Tibetan sky burial from European travelers.  Notable among these are those from The Book of John Mandeville, a compilation of travels, not by the eponymous author,  an English knight, asserted in the narrative, but by a Flemish monk and abbot who lived in the 1300’s.

Steel contrasts the European and Tibetan practices and attitudes.  Writing about the Tibetan rituals seen through medieval European eyes, Steel says:

But even the most cautious interpretation must still recognize Mandeville’s careful attention to nonhuman behavior, and, more importantly, to their essential function for this ritual. Here is a case where the edibility of the human corpse is not a battlefield horror, as with most medieval accounts of bodies eaten by birds; nor is it a sign of the transience, and hence contemptibility, of all mortal things, as with most, if not all, medieval accounts of bodies eaten by worms, toads, and other swarming things of the grave. Nor is it hidden away underground, a repulsive sign of the body’s failure, offered up to others as a warning against worldly attachment. Here edibility is instead part of the public acts of mourning, of familial attachment, especially of material connection of father to son. Managed edibility also recognizes the material stuff of life, and how this material stuff will always come to belong to some other body, and so forth, until this whole sublunary world comes to nothing. – Man is the Pasture of Being 3: Mandeville in Tibet

Steel also discusses in this post contemporary poetic treatments of all this finding a variety of strategies and levels of success.

So when I visited the poet Robert Okaji’s blog I learned he was in participating in a fundraising project for the nonprofit Tupelo Press.  Here, “poets pledge to write 30 poems in 30 days, and raise funds by soliciting donations from sponsors”.  In RO’s version, the donor provides the name of the poem, and he writes the poem.  I contacted Robert, and suggested the title Cyborg Sky Burial (an idea I have written about here).  Here is the result.

Cyborg Sky Burial / by Robert Okaji

Who will render the fleshless,
the bones which are not bone?

This cloud holds water. That one preserves thought.
All emptied vessels serve the same purpose.

Consciousness exits the head and rises
to the next state, preceding rebirth,
zeros and ones blending in various combinations,

scattering within the molded skies
and joining others to remake something new,
another mind, another body. The same.

Programmers guide the spirit for seven weeks.
How many times have I returned,
replicated yet different, undiminished,

uploaded? The priests chant, smile and laugh as they
release the discarded parts, feeding
the angels, which later soar above the plateau.

Alms for the birds.
Prayer flags wave through the juniper air.

Pulverized bones and memories are mixed
with barley flour and thrown to the crows.

A drone appears and they scatter.

I especially enjoyed the last three lines, combining the materiality of bones with the appearance of immateriality of memories, all of it dispersed with the arrival of drones and their own incursions across the border between the human and the machine.

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