According to a recent Internet article, a French woman hiker in the Pyrenees was eaten by vultures within minutes of being killed in a fall. The article was meant to shock and went on to describe how vultures’ strong sense of smell can quickly detect a dead animal miles away.
As repulsive as it sounds today, excarnation, separating and destroying the flesh, was a common method of disposing of the dead in ancient times. Bodies were purposely exposed to vultures and decay for a few months, then the bones retrieved and carefully stored in an ossuary, such as in the extensive Catacombs of Paris. Some have suggested Stonehenge had been used for such exposure.
They believed (and many still do) our earthly personality resided in the flesh which was expendable after death. The eternal spirit, however, was in the bones which were treated with respect. Without modern refrigeration and embalming fluid, excarnation was hygienic, spiritual, and in accord with nature.
Technically, the separation and destruction of the flesh could be done by butchering and scraping, but exposure to scavengers such as vultures and hyenas was more common. Some marks of butchering on ancient human bones were once seen as evidence of cannibalism, but are now thought to come from mechanical excarnation.
Even today, some Tibetan Buddhists dispose of their dead by exposure called a “sky burial.” They do not save the bones, believing that the spirit is totally distinct from the body. They cut up the body into small pieces and mash in the bones so that all can quickly be eaten by the vultures. This technique is in accord with their general Buddhist belief that the dead body is a only a spent vessel whose spirit has already moved on, and any remaining life force should be transferred to other creatures quickly. It also vividly illustrates the impermanence of life, as everything else.
The naval practice of burial at sea is a modern example of excarnation.
The practice of excarnation declined with the rise of Catholicism whose common preference (not dogma) was that the body should remain whole, or how else can the departed rise up on judgment day? Cremation has only recently and reluctantly become an acceptable Catholic alternative to burial.