A hero in the desert died;
Men cried that saints should bury him.
And round the grave should guard and ride,
A chivalry of Cherubim.
God said: "There is a better place,
A nobler trophy and more tall;
The beasts that fled before his face
Shall come to make his funeral.
(from) The Dead Hero G. K. Chesterton
Sky burial is the disposal of human corpses by exposing them to the environment for consumption by scavengers (typically carrion birds) and natural decay. Some traditions expose the corpse whole whilst others practice greater or lesser degrees of dismemberment.
The dead would be left either on a designated mountain-top or, in the absence of convenient mountains, on a funerary tower such as the Persian "Towers of Silence".
Sky burial is popular in places which lack a ready supply of earth to bury bodies in and/or wood with which to cremate them (for example the Himalaya mountains) and was also popular in the Zoroastrian religion which considered both earth and fire sacred and not to be profaned with unclean things such as corpses. Expect other users to include those with a distain for the material body (cathars didn't do this, but would be the sort of people who might) or those concerned with "cycles of life" and "returning to the great wheel".
The exposure may be as simple as the deceased's relatives carrying them to a suitable spot and dumping them, or a process of great ritual lead by priests. Depending on the available scavengers there may also be a question of bones being left over … these may then be crushed (and possibly fed to something), stored in an ossuary or simply dumped somewhere, depending on culture. The right sort of scavenger may also consume bones and obviate this problem.
Game and Story Use
- As in real life, something that kills off the scavenger population (like diclofenac devastating the South Asian vulture population) may severely interfere with this mode of burial.
- Conversely, a glut of corpses may create a scavenger population which becomes a nuisance once the supply is cut off…
- This is likely to massively freak out players who aren't used to it.
- Also, this may be tricky to arrange in a culture that doesn't normally practice it - for example public health may object to sky burial of your dead on top of a downtown apartment block and even a sky burial in a national park may attract all kinds of unwelcome attention.
- In a fantasy setting, the scavengers may - intentionally or not - include ghouls.
- Actually, that could make for a perfectly valid funerary practice for a fantasy culture (as per Clark Ashton Smith's The Charnel God), sending their dead off to be consumed by ghouls.