Death traditions hold space for the grief of losing a loved one and leave room to celebrate the life they led. From superstitious beliefs and multiple burials to late-night celebrations, each family grieves differently.
You may be familiar with the traditional Western funeral—the black attire and silent vigils—but there are other death customs around the world not many people know about.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Zoroastrian Beliefs Explained
- What is a Tower of Silence (Dakhma)?
- What Happens in a Tower of Silence?
- Are Towers of Silence Still Used Today?
Zoroastrians are members of an ancient belief system dating back 4,000 years. At its height, it was the ruling religion of the Persian empire, but today there are less than 200,000 followers worldwide.
Zoroastrians may have shaped many of today’s religions with their beliefs. Some of their customs like the Tower of Silence burial survives to this day. In this guide, we’ll explore the history and tradition behind this ancient practice.
Zoroastrian Beliefs Explained
Thousands of years ago, the Zoroastrians migrated all over Europe and India. They spread their beliefs to become the leading religion in the Persian empire. Some scholars think that Zoroastrianism may be the basis for later religions like Judaism and Islam. Today, the largest group of Zoroastrians is found in India.
Before the arrival of the Zoroastrian messenger, Zarathustra—also called Zarathushtra or Zoroaster—many believed in multiple deities (gods and goddesses). Zarathustra had a different message. At an early age, he spent years meditating on visions of God or Ahura Mazda. His message of goodness became popular, especially after it spread to the Persian royal family.
Zarathustra’s ideas stay alive through hymns. They include reflections, meditations, and guidance for Zoroastrians to follow. He wanted each worshipper to become their best through reflection. The worshipper chooses paths, either asha or druj. The honest path of devotion is asha and the chaotic and harmful path is druj.
Zoroastrians place a heavyweight on purity and nature. Worshippers shouldn’t contaminate natural elements like air, water, and fire. The importance of fire is present in various religious rituals. Like the Christian cross, It’s the symbol of the Zoroastrian religion. As he spread his message, Zarathustra carried around fire embers to show purity for all.
Zoroastrian afterlife beliefs are similar to other religions. They believe in one god and life after death. Like in the Christian afterlife, Zoroastrians teach that worshippers go to heaven or hell, depending on their deeds in life. After death, Zoroastrians have special beliefs that separate them from other religions.
Death itself comes from evil forces, and it isn’t welcome. After death, evil forces influence the deceased’s body. The body decomposes, and Zoroastrians believe touching it impacts the living.
Friends and family must sit a certain distance from the body. Special preparations like cleansings before entering the home are taken. The most important ritual isolates the deceased from the rest of the community. It’s an ancient tradition that continues to impact India today.
What is a Tower of Silence (Dakhma)?
Towers of Silence are large circular structures made out of stone. They are a cornerstone of burial practices in the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians leave the deceased’s remains in the tower for vultures to consume. Believers see this as the purest and safest method of disposal for both the community and nature.
After the deceased dies, a procession of loved ones follows the deceased and corpse bearers to the tower. The corpse bearers perform a special ritual before handling the body to protect themselves from ill-fortune.
For Zoroastrians leaving the deceased in the tower and allowing vultures to dispose of their flesh is the cleanest way for the body to decompose. As mentioned before, Zoroastrians see death as the ultimate evil act. As evil rushes into the body, it contaminates the deceased.
The Tower of Silence was the ultimate creation to keep the evil away from loved ones. The Tower of Silence also protects the elements of nature from contamination with dead bodies. For example, cremation pollutes the air and fire while burials in the ground contaminate the soil.
Defleshing corpses dates back to our earliest ancestors—the neanderthals. Not only was it common to peel off the flesh of our loved ones, but many early humans engaged in cannibalism. Scholars debate if this was a ceremonial custom or a sign of respect.
Before the Zoroastrians built structures to lay out the dead, burial mounds were popular. Dating back as far as 4000 BCE to 600 CE, these structures were the first ancient grave. It’s not clear if Zoroastrians took inspiration from ancient practices or if the Tower of Silence was a new concept. Still, they were the first religion to incorporate it into their funeral practice.
Another ceremony that focuses on decomposing the body most naturally is the Tibetan Sky Burial. Some scholars believe this method originates from ancient Persia and the Zoroastrians.
What Happens in a Tower of Silence?
Before a body is left in the Tower of SIlence, loved ones prepare rituals. There are customs that must be followed to ensure the purity of the community, friends, and family from the evil inside the corpse. Over three full days and nights, loved ones gather to sing and pray over the deceased. Once the dying is deceased no one is allowed to touch the body. If they do, they need to participate in a special ritual to cleanse themselves.
One ritual is especially important. Zoroastrians perform it three times before the removal of the corpse to the tower. The sagdīd ceremony, known as the viewing of the dog, drives away the evil inside the corpse. A dog looks at the deceased three times—once after the washing, another time before the removal of the body to the tower, and lastly right before the corpse bearers enter the tower. The corpse bearer is so important that traditionally there are two types:
- Nasâsâlârs. They carry the corpse to the tower and place the corpse in the home.
- Khandhias. These bearers only carry the corpse to the tower then hand over the deceased to the Nasâsâlârs.
Once the corpse bearers carry the body to the tower, they place it in a special row and receptacle. Men, women, and children are placed in different rows. The bearers remove and destroy the polluted clothes immediately.
Instead of using their hands, the use of metal instruments to remove the clothes. After they place the corpse in its resting place, the Nasâsâlârs isolate themselves for nine days and nights for having direct contact with the deceased.
After they leave, within hours, vultures consume the dead’s flesh until only bones remain. The sun performs the last part of the ritual. It dries up the bones until they are crumbling.
Lastly, the crumbled bones become dust in a well inside the middle of the tower. Other times, attendants remove the bones to an ossuary—a room inside or right outside the tower that stores remains.
Are Towers of Silence Still Used Today?
Many of the ancient traditions that accompany the Tower of Silence are found in archeological records from India and Iran. Laying the dead out is at the heart of the Zoroastrian religion.
However, it’s a controversial practice in modern times. In the 1970s, Iran banned the practice, but the Towers of Silence remain. One notable location is in Yazd, a desert city that tourists frequently visit. While the towers aren’t used, they remain a special symbol for Zoroastrians.
In India, the practice isn’t completely gone but fragile. As cities expand their borders, there is less space for towers to remain isolated. Also, a lack of vultures in the area is a large threat to this ancient burial practice.
By 2006, ninety-five percent of vultures went extinct from eating cows contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs. As time passes, the towers of silence become less practical and more difficult to implement.
Choose Your Ritual
The Zoroastrian tower of silence is a unique way to die. While it may be growing impractical, there is a small number of practitioners that continue to honor the practice. We all want to honor our loved ones and remember that love. For Zoroastrians, a temple burial is a sign of that honor.
How would you like to be remembered? Learning about other cultures can prompt thoughts of our own. Beginning end of life planning is one way to organize your own family traditions and take control of your death preferences.
- Karkaria, Bachi. “Death in the city: How a lack of vultures threatens Mumbai's 'Towers of Silence’.” The Guardian. 26 January 2015. www.theguardian.com
- Modi Jamshedji, Jivanji. “The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees.” Avesta. www.avesta.org
- Campos, Israel. “The incidence of Zoroastrian faith in the evolution of the funerary customs in Ancient Iran: “The towers of silence.” World Mummies Research. www.academia.edu
- “About Zoroastrianism.” Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington Inc. zamwi.org
- Pettitt, Paul. “The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial.” Page 45.