Zoroastrianism - Funeral Ceremonies, Death and Disposal Of The Dead

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

One of the most important traditions that sets Zoroastrianism entirely apart from the rest of the world religions today is in respect of the way it suggests the dead should be disposed of. It is also probably the reason why the religion is most difficult to follow in the modern world, in many countries, where legal complications and social issues come in the way of such a practice.

Zoroastrians neither bury their dead nor cremate them. Death is considered to be the domain of the evil being Ahirman and his temporary victory in the material plane. Death and decay cannot overwhelm the spirit, but the material things including the plants, animals and human beings, rivers, wells, lakes and air are susceptible to the corruption caused by Nashuh or the impurities present in the dead matter.

So there is nothing much one can do in case of death, other than let the body remain isolated and decay, untouched and undisturbed by the living people. According to Zoroastrian scriptures, one should isolate the dead body and stay as far away from it as possible to avoid any possible contact with the impurities that the evil forces impart to it by invading it and making it their residence.

Secondly Zoroastrians consider the entire material creation of God as sacred. But since Ahirman attacked the material world and made the elements susceptible to the infusion of evil, one should keep the dead away from all the material things including the elements of fire, water and earth. Fire is a sacred symbol of God in the material plane. So fire should not be made impure by burning an evil ridden corpse with it. The earth is also a sacred. So it should not be tainted by burying the body in it. Similarly water is also a sacred element and bodies should not be thrown in rivers, lakes and oceans. Touching a corpse or dead material intentionally is fraught with the danger of severe pollution and turning oneself over to the forces of evil, As Zarathushtra himself suggested, in ancient times such a violation invited the penalty of death sentence.

The best solution, therefore, according to Zoroastrian beliefs, is to let the body remain in the open and be consumed by vultures and crows, which were created by God for the specific purpose. Zoroastrians therefore leave the dead in houses called dakmsas or silent towers, specially built for the purpose. In ancient times the corpses were usually carried to the hills or a rising ground (vaksh bum) and placed inside an enclosure, where the corpse eating birds and animals would come and consume it there itself without dragging it to other places. But the current practice is to give a bath to the body, offer some prayers and carry it to a dakhma, which is a kind of a tower, a rounded structure with high walls and no roofs, where it is left in the open, to be consumed by the vultures and crows. After a few weeks, when the flesh is completely disintegrated, the bones are collected and stored in deep wells whose bottom is covered with charcoal and lime, where they are allowed to disintegrate slowly. Zoroastrians believe this is the best way to dispose of the dead rather than burying them in the earth or burning them in fire for reasons we have already explained.

In the Vendidad, a Zoroastrian scripture, the following practices are prescribed by the prophet Zarathushtra himself for dealing with the dead. The rituals are the same for both men and dogs. When a person dies, people should search for a Dakhma. In extreme circumstances when it is severely raining or snowing, they should dig a grave and keep the lifeless body there for two nights or three nights until the birds begin to fly or the plants grow or the floods recede. If they find it easier to remove the dead, they should take out the dead and let the house stand. They should purify the house with a perfume such as Urvasna or Vohu-gaona, or Vohu-kereti, or Hadha-naepata, or any other sweet-smelling plant. If it is possible they should remove the house altogether and let the dead lie on the spot. The body should be stripped of all clothes and left completely naked.

Zoroaster prescribed a penalty of 1000 stripes to any one who would throw clothes upon a dead body. The body should be carried by two strong men, after they strip off their clothes, to the place (usually the dakhma or the tower of silence), where the corpse eating birds or animals are present. After laying down the body, the corpse-bearers should sit down, three places from the dead and offer prayers to Ahura Mazda. They should wash their hands and bodies with the urine of sheep or oxen. Once the body is removed, the house in which it was lying and way or the path along which it was carried should be purified by chanting mantras and other means. This would render the house clean and the worshippers of Mazda may prepare meals in that house with meat and wine and mark the occasion.

In Dadestan we find further instructions to dispose of the dead. Once the flesh of the corpse is completely consumed by the flesh eating birds and animals or disintegrated on its own, men (usually close relatives) should convey the bones away to a bone-receptacle, which is a vault (kadako) of solid stone covered with a single stone and its bottom paved with perforated stones or, now a days, usually lime stone and charcoal. It should be elevated from the ground, but covered with a roof top so that neither rain nor flood water will reach the dead matter. The bones should be left there and never touched by a human hand.

Excerpts From Zoroastrian texts

The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees Their origin and explanation

The ceremonies and observances can be divided into two parts: I. Those that relate to the disposal of the body. II. Those that relate to the good of the soul.

For a proper appreciation of the ceremonies of the first kind, one has to look to the Zoroastrian or Parsi ideas of sanitation, segregation, purification, and cleanliness, as expressed in the Vendidad, one of their Avesta Scriptures.[1] To these must be added the idea of simplicity observed in these ceremonies which inculcates a lesson in the mind of the survivors, that, as the Persian poet sings:--

When a man is on the point of death his relations send for two or more priests, who assemble round the sick bed of the dying person and say for his benefit the Patet, which is a prayer for the repentance of one's sins. The priests are paid in money and corn for their attendance. If the person dying is able to join the priest in saying his last repentance-prayer, or if he is able to say it himself alone, so much the better.

A short time before death, the dying person is sometimes made to drink a few drops of the consecrated Haoma water. Haoma being a plant emblematic of immortality, a few drops of the water prepared with its juice by the priests performing the Haoma ceremony in the Fire-temples, are gently thrown into the mouth of the dying person.[4] Sometimes the juice of a few grains of pomegranate, which is considered essential in some of the Parsi ceremonies, is dropped into the mouth of the dying person. [5]

A short time after death, the body of the deceased is washed whole throughout with water, and a white clean suit of cotton clothes is put over him.

This suit of clothes is not washed by the washerman, but is, as we said above, generally, washed beforehand at home by some members of the family, when it is seen that death is imminent, It is afterwards destroyed and never used again for any other purpose. The "Kusti" or sacred thread is then girded round the body by some relative reciting the "Ahura-Mazda Khodâi" prayer. The deceased is then placed on a white clean sheet of cotton cloth spread over the ground. Then two persons keeping themselves in touch with him sit by his side and somebody recites an Ashem Vohu very close to his ear. The relations of the deceased now meet him for the last time.

After this time, nobody is allowed to touch or come into contact with the body, which, it is supposed, now begins to fall under the influence of the "Druj-i Nasu," i.e., the evil influence of decomposition. It is considered unsafe to touch the body which now begins to be decomposed, lest the touch may spread contagion and disease among the living. Only those who put on the clothes over the body and the corpse-bearers are allowed to come into contact with the body. If somebody happens to touch by mistake the dead body, he is, lest he spread contagion; prohibited from touching other person; before he purifies himself by the process of "Rimani," which consists in washing himself by a particular method.

The body is then entrusted to two persons who are generally trained to this work. They have, at first washed themselves, put on clean suits of clothes, performed the Kusti [6] and said the "Srosh Baj" prayer up to the word "Ashahê". Then holding a "paywand" [7] between them they enter into the house. The two relations who are sitting by the side of the body now leave their places and entrust it to these two persons who now place the corpse on the ground on a white sheet of cloth and proceed to cover the whole body with cloth. The only portion kept uncovered is the face. In some parts of Gujarat, even the face is covered with a "padan". [8] The body is then lifted from its place by these two persons and put on slabs of stone placed in a corner of the room. The hands are arranged upon the chest crosswise. The body is never placed with its head towards the North [9] In some towns of Gujarat, the old Avestan method of placing the dead body on the ground is still in practice. The ground is dug out a few inches in depth and a layer of sand is spread over it. The dead body is then placed on the spot thus prepared. (Vendidad 5.11; 8.8.)

After placing the body on the slabs of stone or on the ground dug and prepared as above, one of the two persons draws with a metallic bar or nail three "kashas" or deep circles. This is intended to show that the ground within the circle is the ground temporarily set apart for the dead body and that nobody was to go to that part of the ground lest he catch infection. [10]

Dadestan - Chapter 15

5. It is necessary for those to act very differently whose understanding of good works is owing to proper heed; of dead matter; and, on account of the rapid change (vardi-hastano) of that pollution, and a desire of atonement for sin, they should carry the body of one passed away out to a mountain-spur (kof vakhsh), or a place of that description, enjoining unanimously that the dogs and birds may gnaw it, owing to the position of the appointed place.

6. Therefore, as owing to that fear, the commands of religion, and progressive desire it is accepted strenuously for the wicked himself, his own recompense is therein, and it happens to him in that way for the removal (narafsishno) of sin and for the gratification of his soul.

Dadestan - Chapter 16

1. The fifteenth question is that which you ask thus: When the dogs and birds tear it (the corpse) does the soul know it, and does it occur uncomfortably for it, or how is it?

2. The reply is this, that the pain occasioned by the tearing and gnawing so galls (maledo) the body of men that, though the soul were abiding with the body, such soul, which one knows is happy and immortal, would then depart from the body, along with the animating life, the informing (sinayinako) consciousness, and the remaining resources of life.

3. The body is inert, unmoving, and not to be galled; and at last no pain whatever galls it, nor is it perceived; and the soul, with the life, is outside of the body, and is not unsafe as regards its gnawing, but through the spiritual perception it sees and knows it.

Dadestan - Chapter 17

7. The injury of the destroyer to the body of those passed away is contaminating; the Nasush ('corruption') rushes on it and, owing to its violence when it becomes triumphant over the life of the righteous man, and frightens it from the place of the catastrophe (hankardikih), and puts itself into the place of the body, that body is then, for that reason, called Nasai ('dead matter').

8. And, on account of the coexistence of rapid changing and the mode of attacking of the same Nasush, even when it is necessary for the disintegration of the body, this is also then to lie and change sanitarily.

Dadestan - Chapter 20

1. The nineteenth question is that you ask thus: To what place do the righteous and wicked go?

2. The reply is this, that it is thus said that the souls of those passed away and of the dead are three nights on earth; and the first night satisfaction comes to them from their good thoughts and vexation from their evil thoughts, the second night come pleasure from their good words and discomfort and punishment from their evil words, and the third night come exaltation from their good deeds and punishment from their evil deeds.

3. And that third night, in the dawn, they go to the place of account on Alburz; the account being rendered they proceed to the bridge, and he who is righteous passes over the bridge on the ascent (lalaih), and if belonging to the ever-stationary (hamistagan) [purgatory] he goes thither where their place is, if along with an excess of good works his habits are correct (frarun-dad) he goes even unto heaven (vahishto), and if along with an excess of good works and correct habits he has chanted the sacred hymns (gasano) he goes even unto the supreme heaven (garothman).

4. He who is of the wicked falls from the lower end (tih) of the bridge, or from the middle of the bridge; he falls head-foremost to hell, and is precipitated (nikuni-aito) unto that grade which is suitable for his wickedness

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