Zoroastrianism - The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees, Part 2

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, B.A., Ph.D., C.I.E.

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"However distant may be the home of a deceased person, whether rich or poor, high or low in rank, he has always a walking funeral -- his body is carried to the Tower of Silence on an iron bier by official corpse-bearers and is followed in procession by the mourners, relatives and friends, dressed in white flowing full-dress robes, walking behind in pairs and each couple joined hand in hand by holding a white handkerchief between them in token of sympathetic grief."

The construction of a Tower is accompanied by religious ceremonies which are performed at different times during the progress of the structure and are therefore divided into three classes:--

1. The ceremony of digging the ground.

2. The "tana" ceremony, or the ceremony of laying the foundation.

3. The consecration ceremony, after which the Tower is laid open for public use.

1. In the center of the spot chosen for a Tower, a priest encloses a certain place with a "pavi" [21] and thereon performs the "Baj" ceremonies in honor of Srosh, the guardian angel guiding the souls of the deceased, of Ahura Mazda, of Spenta Armaiti, -- the Archangel presiding over land, a portion of which is now being enclosed for the construction of the Tower, -- of "Ardafrawash," i.e., all the departed souls, and of Haft Amahraspands, i.e., the seven archangels. Having performed the prayers and ceremonies the priest digs with his own hand a part of the ground required for the Tower.

2. A few days after, when the whole of the necessary spot of ground is excavated by the laborers, two priests perform in the morning the "Tana" ceremony for laying the foundation of the Tower. The ceremony is so called from the fact of "Tana" or a very fine thread being used to mark out the circumference of the Tower for the laying of the foundation. One hundred and one [22] threads are woven into one strong thread or string. The thread so prepared should be as long as would suffice to go round the circumference three times. [23] Some time before its use this thread is made "pâv," [24], i.e., washed, purified, and dried.

To hold this thread, the priests have to fix in the excavated ground three hundred and one nails of different sizes. After saying the "Srosh-Baj" prayer up to "Ashahê," they proceed to fix the three hundred and one nails, reciting the "Yatha Ahu Vairyo" while fixing each nail. These nails are placed in different directions and lines pointing the position of the underground drains and wells of the Tower referred to in the construction of the Tower. The thread is then passed round these nails and is not allowed to touch the ground. All this is intended to mark out the ground for the Tower and for the different parts of its structure.

3. The consecration ceremony lasts for four days. The Tower is surrounded by a "Pâvi," and in the central well of the Tower, called the "Bhandâr," two priests perform the Yasna ceremonies during the day in the "Hawan Gah," and the Vendidad ceremonies at night in the "Ushahin Gah" for three consecutive days. These ceremonies are in honor of the angel Srosh, who is guiding the soul of the deceased person for three days and nights after death. On the morning of the fourth day or the opening day of the Tower, a Yasna ceremony is performed in honor of Ahura Mazda.

Then the "Baj" and "Afrinagan" ceremonies are performed in honor of Ahura Mazda, of "Ardafrawash," i.e., the departed souls, of Spandarmad, i.e., the Yazad presiding over mother-earth, a portion of which is now occupied for laying the dead upon, and of Srosh. In the Afrinagan ceremony, known as the Jashan [25] ceremony, which is performed in the presence of a large number of the community assembled to witness it, the name of the donor at whose expense the Tower is built is mentioned and the blessings of God invoked upon him. If the Tower is constructed by the donor in honor of, or to commemorate the memory of, a deceased relative, the name of that relative is publicly mentioned. When the ceremony is over, the Parsis assembled go into the Tower to see it and throw into the central well, gold, silver or copper coins as their mite in the expenses of the construction of the Tower. Some throw even their rings and ornaments. These go to make up the sum necessary for building the Tower, if it is built at the expense of the anjoman or the whole community. If it is built at the expense of a generous donor, the amount thus collected goes to the head priest of the district in whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction the Tower lies.

We have described at great length the funeral ceremonies of the Parsis up to the time of the disposal of the body in the Tower. We have also described at length the construction of the Tower and the ceremonies accompanying it. It appears that at the bottom of a good many of them lies a great solicitude, on the part of the great law-giver who framed the rules and dictated the ceremonies, to attend to the sanitary good of the survivors. At first sight, the details may appeal irksome, but from the standpoint of sanitation and health, most of them, though enjoined about 3,000 years ago, appear essential and indispensable. Every precaution is enjoined, so that, in disposing of the dead body, no contamination or injury may result to the living. After a certain time after death, no man, except the official corpse-bearers, is allowed to touch the dead body or to come into any contact with it. If somebody accidentally or unavoidably does touch the body he is enjoined to keep himself aloof from others and not to touch them before he bathes and undergoes a prescribed ceremonial of different washings.

Not only should a man not come into contact with the dead body, but even utensils and other articles of furniture should be kept away from the corpse. If wearing clothes have been defiled by the sweat, vomit, etc., of the dead, they should be altogether rejected and destroyed. (Vend. 7.13.) If not defiled, they may be purified by the "gomez" [26] and water. If the clothes are made of leather they must be washed thrice with "gomez," rubbed with dry earth thrice, washed with water thrice, and exposed for three months in the air before being used again. If they are made of woven cloth, which is more porous than leather and therefore likely to carry more germs of disease and infection, the above process of cleaning and washing must be repeated six times, and they must be exposed to the air for a period of six months. (Vend. 7.14-15.) Even the clothes thus purified cannot be used again for religious purposes or for ordinary domestic purposes, but they can be used for other petty purposes. (Vend. 7.18-19.)

Utensils for domestic purposes, if they have come into contact with a dead body, require to be washed several times according to the specific gravity of the metal of which they are made. If the utensil is made of gold it requires one washing with "gomez" and water and a rubbing with dry earth. An utensil of silver, which is more porous than gold and therefore likely to carry more contagion, requires two similar cleanings and washings. An iron one requires three, a zinc one four, and a stone six washings. An utensil of porcelain, wood or clay is to be condemned altogether.(Vendidad 7.73-75.) In the same way, if accidentally a dead body happens to come into contact with stores of grain (Vendidad 7.32-35) or of drinking water (Vendidad 6.26-41), it is enjoined to reject and condemn a certain quantity in the approximate vicinity of the body.

Thus at the bottom of all religious injunctions and restrictions in connection with the funeral ceremonies and the disposal of the dead body, lies the sanitary principle of segregation, prevention of contamination and infection, sad the idea of observing simplicity and equality.

We will now speak of some of the observances attended to in the house even after the removal of the corpse. They also point to the same end.

After the removal of the body to the Tower all the members of the family are required to bathe. Fire is generally kept burning for three days at the spot where the body was placed before removal. Fragrant sandal and incense are burnt over it. We have spoken above about the good attributed to the fire in destroying the germs of the disease lurking at the spot where the decomposing body was placed.

Again, the spot where the body was placed before removal is generally set apart and not used for some time. Nobody is allowed to go on the spot for a period of ten days if the season at the time be winter, and for a period of thirty days, if the season be summer, when the decomposition and contamination are generally more rapid.

Near the spot where the body was placed, a lamp is kept burning for a period of nine days or thirty days, according as it is winter or summer. In a small pot full of water fresh flowers are kept and changed every morning and evening. On the expiry of the above period the chamber is washed throughout.

For three days after death the family abstains from meat, and takes food chiefly consisting of vegetable and fish, which is called "parhîzî" (abstinence). Not only do the family, but even nearest and dearest friends abstain from meat diet. The abstinence is observed as a sign of mourning. Up to recently in Bombay, and even now in some of the mofussil towns, no food is cooked in the house where death has taken place. The nearest relations of the family prepare the food for the bereaved family and send it over to the place.


We will now speak of the funeral ceremonies performed for the good of the soul after the disposal of the body.

According to Parsi scriptures, the soul of a dead person remains within the precincts of this world for three days. In this state it sees before itself a picture of its past deeds. If it is the soul of a pious person, it sees a beautiful picture of its deeds in the past life and feels happy and joyful. If it is the soul of a wicked person, it sees a horrible picture of its past deeds and shudders and feels unhappy at the sight and feels at a loss where to go.

"Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda, 'O Ahura Mazda, Beneficent Spirit, Holy Creator of the material world! when a pious man dies where dwells his soul for that night? ..... Where for the second night? ..... Where for the third night?'" (Yasht Fragment 22. Hadokht Nask 1, 2 and 5). "Then Ahura Mazda replied, 'It remains at the place of his body, singing the Ushtavaiti Gatha (song of congratulation), asking for blessedness thus: Blessedness to him to whom Ahura Mazda of His own will grants blessedness.'" (Hadokht Nask, 2, 4 and 6.)

If it is the soul of a wicked man it remains within the precincts of this world for three nights, remembering all the wickedness of its past life and feeling at a loss where to go.

"Oh Ahura Mazda! To what land shall I turn? Where shall I go?" (Had. Nask, 20).

The soul of a man thus remains within the precincts of this world for three days. The number three is a sacred number, because it reminds one of the three principal precepts of the Mazdayasnian religion upon which the whole of its moral structure rests. Humata, Hukhta, and Hvarshta, i.e., good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, form as it were a pivot upon which the moral philosophy of the Zoroastrian religion turns. Think of nothing but the truth, speak nothing but the truth, and do nothing but what is right, and you are saved. Your good thoughts, good words, and good deeds will be your saviors in the next world. Therefore, it is, that, three days after death, the soul of a man directs itself towards the paradise with three steps of Humata, Hukhta, and Hvarshta. On the other hand, the soul of a wicked man directs itself to hell with three steps of Dushmata, Duzhukhta, and Duzhvarshta, i.e., evil thoughts, evil words, and evil actions.

"The first step which the soul of the pious man advanced, be placed in Humata (good thoughts). The second step which the soul of the pious man advanced, he placed in Hukhta (good words). The third step which the soul of the pious man advanced, he placed in Hvarshta (good deeds)." (Had. Nask, 15)

Now for the three days and nights that a soul is believed to remain within the precincts of this world, it is under the special protection of Srosh Yazad. The angel Srosh is a guardian deity over the souls of men. He is a guardian angel whom the Almighty has appointed to guide the souls of men while living and even when dead

"O beautiful, holy Srosh! protect us here in these two lives, in these two worlds, in this world which is material, in that which is spiritual." (Yasna 57.25.)

As Srosh is the protector of the soul in this world, all the prayers of a Zoroastrian begin with a Srosh Baj, which is a prayer for the Khshnuman of Srosh. It is for this reason that Srosh Yasht (Yasna 57) is generally recited by a Parsi at night before going to bed, praying that his soul be under the protection of the angel when he is asleep.

As the soul is under the protection of Srosh for three days after death, when it is still within the precincts of this world, the religious ceremonies for the soul of the dead during the first three days are performed in honor of or for the Khshnuman of Srosh. This angel is specially implored by the relations of the deceased to protect his soul. We will now describe these ceremonies in honor of Srosh, performed for the first three days.

At the commencement of every Gah two or more priests and the relatives of the dead say the Sraosh Baj and the prayer of the particular Gah, and in the end the Patet or the repentance prayer which is also with the Khshnuman of Srosh, asking the forgiveness of God upon the shortcomings of the deceased. At night, at the commencement of the Aiwisruthrem Gah, two priests perform the Afrinagan ceremony in honor of Srosh.They sit on a carpet face to face with a vase of fire and a metallic tray between them. The senior priest who has the tray before him is called "Zaoti" or performer of ceremonies. The other who has a vase of fire before him is called the Atravakhshi, or the fire-priest. The metallic tray contains a pot of pure water and a few flowers, eight of which are arranged in a particular order. Two of them point to the fire and the remaining six are arranged in two rows of three each, pointing to one another and in a line at right angles to the line in which the first two are arranged.

The Zaota begins the Afrinagan with what is called a "Dibache," i.e., introduction, which is a prayer in the Pazand language, wherein he invokes the protection of the angel Srosh upon the soul of the deceased, whom he names in the prayer. When the "Dibache" is recited both the priests recite together the seventh Kardah or section of the Srosh Yasht (Yasna 57.15-18), which sings the praise of the angel for the protection it affords.

Besides these prayers and ceremonies, which are performed for three days and nights at the house of the deceased, the Yasna prayers, and sometimes the Vendidad with the Khshnuman of Srosh, are recited at the adjoining Fire-temples for three successive mornings and nights. These Yasna prayers and the Baj ceremonies with the Khshnuman of Srosh, can be performed only at the Fire temples. In the Uzerin Gah of the third day, a ceremony is performed which is called the "uthamnu". The friends and relatives of the deceased and a few priests meet together in an assembly. The particular prayers of the Gah, the Sraosh Hadokht (Yasht 11) and the Patet are recited.A Pazand prayer with the Khshnuman of Srosh is recited, wherein the name of the deceased is announced and the protection of Srosh is implored for him. This ceremony and this assembly are very important, because at the end of the ceremony the relations and friends of the deceased generally announce liberal donations to charity funds in the "naiyat" or memory of the deceased and to commemorate his name.

The Parsis have another custom of commemorating the name of a deceased person if he be a great public benefactor. At the conclusion of the above "Uthamnu" ceremony on the third day, the head priest generally, or in his absence an "akâbar" i.e., a leader of the community, proposes before the assembled Anjoman, i.e., the public assembly, that the name of the deceased public benefactor, whose benefaction or good deeds he enumerates, be commemorated by the community consenting to remember the name of the deceased in all the public religious ceremonies. This proposal is sometimes seconded by somebody,. or very often it is just placed before the assembly without any formal seconding. When nobody opposes that proposal, silence is taken as consent and thenceforth the name of the deceased is recited and his soul is remembered in all public religious ceremonies. If the deceased public benefactor has done benevolent acts for the good of the whole Parsi community, in whatever part of the world they be, his name is recited and remembered by the whole community. If the deceased has done good and benevolent acts for the good of the community of his own particular town or district, the Anjoman of that town or district alone begins to invoke his name in the religious ceremonies. For example, the name of Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the first Parsi Baronet, who rose from very poor circumstances to be a merchant prince of India, and who give large sums of money in charity, not only for his own coreligionists but for all sections of the mixed community of India, is remembered in the religious ceremonies by the whole Parsi community in India.

This custom [27] is a very old one. It had its origin in the old Avesta times. The written later on in the Pazand language, contains a few names of such illustrious departed worthies. The formulae used for this purpose have varied at different times. The formula used in the Frawardin Yasht is in this form:

"We invoke the Fravashi of the holy Yima of Vivanghana."

The formula used in the Pazand Afrin-i Rapithwin is in a form like this:

"May the holy spirit of the Emperor Kay-Vishtasp be one with us in ceremony."

The formula used now in the Pazand Dibache of the Afrinagan is in a form like this:

"May behdin [28] Jamshed Behdin Rustam [29] of pious soul be remembered here."

The honor of thus remembering the name of a deceased person in public religious ceremonies was considered the greatest honor that a grateful community could bestow upon a person after his death for the good he had conferred upon his fellow-brothers.

If the deceased is of the age of fifteen and has left no son, it is necessary that a son should be given to him in adoption. The adopted son generally belongs to a nearly related family. The name of the son thus adopted is declared publicly before the assembly.

The dawn after the third night after death is considered a great and solemn occasion. As we said above, the soul of a man remains within the precincts of this world for three days. On the dawn after the third night it goes to the other world. The soul passes over a bridge called Chinwad. [30]

"(The soul) goes to the holy Chinwad Bridge created by Mazda, which is an old path of times immemorial, and which is for the wicked as well as for the holy. There they ask the soul (to account) for its deeds done in this material world." (Vend. 19.29.)

The bridge is guarded by the angel Mithra.

"(When) the third night ends and the dawn shines the well-armed Mithra appears at the sufficiently happy mountain." (Vend. 19.28.)

This angel who is known in the later books as Mihr Dâvar, i.e., Mihr the Judge, is assisted by Rashn, the angel of Justice, and Ashtad, the angel of Truth. They judge the actions of the man done in the past life. If his good deeds overweigh even by a small particle his misdeeds, his soul is allowed to pass over the bridge to paradise. If his good deeds are equal to his misdeeds, the soul goes to a place called hamistagan. [31] (Vend. 19.36.) If his misdeeds outweigh his good deeds, even by a particle, he is cast down into hell.

Thus, the dawn after the third night after death is the occasion when the soul of the man is judged by Mihr Dâvar, the Judge, assisted by Rashn Rast, the angel of Justice, and Ashtad, the angel of Truth. Therefore, it is considered a very important and solemn occasion for the performance of religions ceremonies for the good of the soul of the deceased. The ceremonies performed in the Uzerin Gah on the previous day are repeated, and the Afrinagan and Baj prayers and ceremonies are performed in addition. This being the time of the judgment of the man's deeds, his relations and friends pray for God's mercy on the soul of the deceased. Man is liable to err, and therefore they implore the blessing and mercy of the Almighty on this particular occasion, when his deeds are judged by the angel Mihr assisted by Rashn and Ashtad.

The Baj ceremonies on this occasion are recited in honor of the angels who have an important share in connection with this occasion. The first Baj is in honor of the angels Rashn and Ashtad together, who help the angel Mihr. The second is in honor of Ram-Khvastra, who is the angel presiding on the rarefied atmosphere or ether. This is because when a man dies the soul of a good pious man passes away to the higher regions in the form of, or with the help of, this Râm-Khvâstra. The third Baj is in honor of Ardafrawash, i.e., in honor of the spirits of all the departed souls whose rank, the particular deceased for whom the ceremony is performed, has joined. The fourth Baj is in honor of Srosh who has guided and guarded the soul of the deceased in its sojourn to the other world after death. When the Baj of Ardafrawash is recited, a suit of white clothes, together with the sacred bread and other sacrificial articles, is placed before the priest. This suit of clothes is called "Shiâv". It is the Vastra in the word Vastravata of the Frawardin Yasht.

("Who will praise us ... with clothes in hand?" Frav. Yasht 13.50.)

This suit of clothes is generally given to the priest or to the poor.

The other principal occasions on which the Afrinagan and Baj ceremonies are enjoined to be performed in honor of the dead, are the"Chehârum," "Dehum," "Siroz," "Salroz," i.e., the fourth day, the tenth day, the thirtieth day and a year after death.

According to the Zoroastrian belief, the relation between a pious deceased and his surviving relations does not altogether cease after death. His holy spirit continues to take some interest in his living dear ones. If the surviving relatives cherish his memory, remember him with gratefulness, try to please him with pious thoughts, pious words and pious deeds, it is likely that these invisible departed spirits will take an interest in their welfare, and assist them with an invisible helping hand. The most essential requisite by which a surviving relative can please the holy spirits of his departed dear ones is this that he should be pious in thoughts, words and deeds, and that he should perform meritorious charitable deeds. We read in Yasna (Ha 16.7):

"We praise the brilliant deeds of piety in which the souls of the deceased delight."

For this reason, it is not unusual among the Parsis, that on the above-mentioned occasions, of the third, fourth, tenth, and thirtieth day, and on the anniversaries after death, they give food and clothing to the poor of their community, and sometimes give various sums in charity. These occasions are further the occasions on which the surviving relatives remember the deceased with feelings of gratitude, respect and love, and pray to God that his soul may rest in peace and tranquillity.

It appears from all this description, that the funeral ceremonies of the Parsis produce in the minds of the survivors a great solicitude for the health of the living, respect for the dead, feelings of gratitude and love towards the deceased, and ideas of morality and virtue inculcated by the thoughts that death levels everybody, and that one should always be prepared for death which may overtake him at any moment.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


21. "Pâvi" (from "pâv," i.e., scared) is a kind of trench a few inches deep in the ground. It is intended to separate a portion of a place from the adjoining ground in order to perform a sacred ceremony therein. No outsider is allowed to enter within this enclosed place while the ceremony is being performed. The Yasna, Baj, and Vendidad ceremonies are performed only within such enclosed spaces. In Fire Temples the sacred fire burns on a censer within such an enclosed space.

22. One hundred and one is a sacred number, because, according to the Avesta, the Almighty God has one hundred and one names which signify all his virtues. These one hundred and one names are recited in several ceremonies, e.g., in preparing the sacred "Zaothra" or consecrated water for the Haoma ceremony.

23. The number three is a sacred number, being symbolic of Humata, Hukhta, and Hvarshta, i.e., good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, the three precepts on which the moral structure of the Zoroastrian religion rests.

24. To make a thing "pâv" is to wash it properly with pure water. The purification is sometimes accompanied with the recital of this formula, "Pleased be Ahura Mazda. Piety is the best good and happiness. Happiness to him who is pious for the best Piety."

25. Jashan is the contraction of Yajashna.

26. The "nirang," or the urine of the cow, which is believed to possess disinfecting properties.

27. I am told that a similar custom prevails at the University of Oxford, where during the bidding prayer they make "a long statement recalling the gifts of benefactors to the University in time, past. It is really a thanksgiving to Almighty God for the gifts of the worthies of old who gave lands and money to endow the Colleges and the University. The list of benefactors is read out in full on the high festivals In the University Church only."

28. "Behdin," i.e., of good religion is a term applied to the name of a Zoroastrian layman. if the deceased' belongs to the priestly class, and has gone through the initiating ceremony of Nawar, he is spoken of as "Ervad" (which is another form of Herbed, which itself is the later 'aethra paiti' of the Avesta). If the deceased belongs to the priestly class, but has not gone through the initiating ceremony or the Nawar, he is spoken of as "Osta," which is the contraction of 'hâvishta' in the Avesta. If the deceased is a female of the priestly class she is spoken of as "Osti". If he is a head priest he is spoken of as Dastur, which is a contraction of Pahlavi 'dastwar.'

29.The second name is the name of the father. If the deceased was adopted, his adoptive father's name is mentioned instead of his own father. In the case of females the name of her father is mentioned with hers if she is unmarried, and that of the husband if she is married. In case of a second marriage, the name of the first husband is mentioned with hers.

30. The Chinwad Bridge reminds one of the "Sirat" of the Arabs, of "Wogho" of the Chinese, the "Giöell" and "Bifröst" of the Scandinavians. For a similar belief of the Ancient Egyptians, vide my paper, "The Belief about the future of the Soul among the Ancient Egyptians and Iranians" (Journal B.B.R.A.S. XX, pp. 156-199. My "Asiatic Papers," pp. 137-146).

31. The Hameshta-gehân of the Parsis reminds one of the purgatory of the Christians and the "Aeraf" of the Mahomedans.

This is a reproduction of the paper "The Funeral Ceremoniesof the Parsees Their origin and explanation by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, B.A., Ph.D., C.I.E. Fourth Edition Bombay, 1928."

This paper was read before the Anthropological Society of Bombay, at its Monthly Meeting of Wednesday, the 30th September 1891. It was at first reprinted from the Journal of the Society in 1892. The second edition was published with a few alterations in 1905. The third edition was published with the omission of the quotations given in the earlier editions in the Avesta character in 1923.

Colaba, 8th

August 1928.

Image Attribution: The image of Zoroaster used for this essay has been adapted with alterations from Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later

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