How Zoroastrian Funeral Rites Differ from Christian Practices

SharePinEmailMany people think that Zoroastrianism is an early form of Christianity, but there are some very different things about this religion, particularly its funeral traditions, that make it stand apart from all the Abrahamic religions. The History of Zoroastrianism Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that predates all the Abrahamic religions, making it one of the…

Many people think that Zoroastrianism is an early form of Christianity, but there are some very different things about this religion, particularly its funeral traditions, that make it stand apart from all the Abrahamic religions.

The History of Zoroastrianism

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Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that predates all the Abrahamic religions, making it one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. It can be traced back to the area of modern-day Iran, but Zoroastrianism survives in isolated parts of Iraq, and India where the descendants of Persian immigrants or Parsees settled. 

The founder of the religion is thought to be Zarathustra who is known by Zoroaster, the Greek form of his name. The religion features both monotheistic and dualistic characteristics and it has evolved to influence many Western religions. 

The Significance of Death in Zoroastrianism

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Zoroastrianism considers that there is a close connection between physical purity and spiritual purity. By default, death is thought impure, as is anything touched by a dead body. This means that Zoroastrians prioritize disposing of their dearly departed quickly and in a way that affects the material world as little as possible. 

Traditional Funerals are Widely Banned

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There are some things about traditional Zoroastrian funerals that many people in the West would consider very strange. For this reason, traditional Zoroastrian funerals are banned almost everywhere. In countries where a traditional funeral is not legal, modern Zoroastrians have the bodies of their loved ones cremated. 

Vultures Play a Key Role in Funeral Rites

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Traditional Zoroastrian funerals involve a Tower of Silence. The body is set out in the sun at the top of the tower, where vultures devour it. Vultures are very efficient scavengers and can reduce the human body to just bones in an hour. 

While this can seem unnecessarily gruesome, it is very holistic. Zoroastrians want an efficient way to dispose of an impure dead body and this method benefits living creatures by giving the vultures an easy meal. Feeding a body to vultures is considered a final act of goodwill for a Zoroastrian. 

Traditional Funerals Are Legal in Mumbai

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While increasing urbanization has made traditional Zoroastrian funerals impractical in many areas, they are still legal in Mumbai. The main area for Towers of Silence is Malabar Hill, which is in the middle of Doongerwadi, a large 54-acre garden in Mumbai. Here, it is still possible to hold a legal and traditional Zoroastrian funeral. 

The Mumbai Vulture Population is in Decline

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Although traditional Zoroastrian funerals are legal in Mumbai, there is a problem due to the decline in the vulture population in the area. Diclofenac, a drug used as a painkiller for livestock, unwittingly decimated the area’s vulture population before it was banned in 2006. This has created a shortage of vultures for Zoroastrian funerals. 

To combat this issue, the Parsi community in Mumbai has installed solar concentrators which dehydrate the bodies more quickly. 

Bull Urine Bathing

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As soon as a Zoroastrian dies, the community starts taking action immediately to prepare the body for the tower. The first step is ritual bathing using water and bull’s urine or gomez. Gomez is a part of several purification rituals in Zoroastrianism as it is considered a cleansing agent due to its high ammonia content. After the funeral, mourners also wash with gomez. 

Death as a Demon

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In certain Zoroastrian scriptures, death is considered to be a demon overpowering the person and replacing their body with dead matter. Nasu, as this demon is known, is the very embodiment of decay, so it must be dealt with quickly. 

This explains why Zoroastrians speedily arrange funerals as they consider there is a demon present inside the corpse who wants to emerge and cause carnage. 

Dogs Can Cast Out Demons

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Fortunately, the corpse demon can be held at bay until the body reaches the tower. One such ritual is sagdid or “gaze of the dog.” The dogs are selected for ritual use in advance, and one is brought to the corpse to drive away the demon and ensure that the corpse is less impure. 

Paiwand Link

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Another way Zoroastrians keep the corpse demon from spreading its contagion is with a physical connection to a living human. According to Zoroastrians, it’s a sin to be in the presence of the dead alone. So, the corpse bearers move in pairs during the funeral. A paiwand or piece of tape or cloth is held by both corpse bearers to symbolize their link.

Corpse Bearers are Isolated

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Since bodies and the death demon are so reviled, professional corpse bearers are the only ones permitted near dead bodies. Even close friends and family members keep their distance from their deceased loved ones to avoid the demon. 

Unfortunately, rather than being rewarded for the important role they play, corpse bearers are considered untouchable and dirty. 

Families are Not Permitted Near the Towers of Silence

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While funerals are a way to celebrate the person in many Western religions, families are not allowed to enter the area near the Towers of Silence. Although the family may follow the body, once they reach the Towers they turn back and leave the remainder of the funeral rites to the corpse bearers. 

The Bones are Placed in an Ossuary

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Once the vultures have done their work, only bones remain. These are bleached and dried in the sun before being placed in an ossuary. This is either a central pit in a communal area or an individual container, tomb, or cave. 

No Monuments

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Many Christians take comfort in visiting the grave of their loved ones and praying. But in Zoroastrianism, there are no monuments to remember the dead. Instead memorial prayers are recited on the tenth day after death, again after one month, and then every year on the anniversary of the death to keep the memory of the person alive. 

Three or Four Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Take Place a Day in Mumbai

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Mumbai is a city with a population of 16 million and tens of thousands of these people are Zoroastrians. This means that approximately three Zoroastrian funerals take place every day. 

Some Zoroastrians Ship Their Loved Ones to Areas That Permit Traditional Funerals

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Traditional Zoroastrian funerals are banned in the vast majority of areas. If Zoroastrians don’t live near a Tower of Silence, they may ship their dead to any area that has one to have a traditional funeral performed. 

The Modern Approach is Becoming More Common

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With the feasibility of traditional funerals becoming more difficult, it is becoming more common for modern Zoroastrians to have their loved ones cremated or placed in a grave lined with concrete to prevent the impurity infecting the surrounding earth. While this is still controversial and remains unaccepted by traditionalists, it is becoming the more common option. 

The Connections Between Zoroastrianism and Christianity

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Although the traditional funeral rites of Zoroastrianism can seem very strange to Christians, there are still some commonalities. Both Christians and Zoroastrians remember their dead through prayer, particularly on the anniversary of the death. This tradition may have been adopted by the early Christians from Zoroastrianism, so we may have more in common than you think. 

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