Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest continuously practiced religions, but there’s not a lot that’s understood about it in mainstream culture. Most believers today live in India and Iran, and their numbers are declining overall. Dating back to ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet Zoroaster.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Do Zoroastrians Think About Death?
- What Happens in the Zoroastrian Afterlife?
- How Do Zoroastrians Bury and Remember the Deceased?
Over time, Zoroastrianism shaped one of the world’s biggest empires. Though it’s less common today, it’s still interesting to look deeper into this religion to understand its unique views. As a religion that helped shape Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there’s a lot we can all learn from these unique perspectives.
In this religion, different elements have different symbolism. Each of these plays into their practices for respecting the dead. They also help answer the question of what happens when you die. In this guide, we’ll explore Zoroastrian beliefs about death and the afterlife in greater detail.
What Do Zoroastrians Think About Death?
Like all religions, Zoroastrians have very specific views on death and dying. These views are so unique to these believers that they’re often at the focus of study for researchers and anthropologists.
Despite this religion surviving thousands of years, many of the original death beliefs are similar to how they were centuries ago. When we consider the role of these ideas about dying, it’s clear how they tie into views of the afterlife.
The impurity of the body
When the body dies, according to Zoroastrians, it becomes impure immediately. This religion believes that death comes from a type of devil figure known as Angra Mainyu. Not unlike the Christian afterlife, Angra Mainyu performs dark deeds on earth and in the afterlife.
Everyone alive on earth is a creation of God. The elements are the purest thing we have. To contaminate the elements (earth, fire, water, and air) with any type of decaying matter is against the religion.
Because of this, Zoroastrians have some of the most unusual practices when it comes to disposing of dead bodies. Instead of a burial or cremation, which would be seen as sacrilege, Zoroastrians lay the body on a tower.
This type of tower, traditionally on a mountain, is known as a “Tower of Silence.” The body would decompose in the sun and be eaten by vultures and other birds. Using a Tower of Silence is the only way to remove the impure body from this world. In doing so, the body returns to nature.
The Zoroastrian soul
The soul, or a person’s being, is a godly thing. Since humans are created by God, Zoroastrians believe the soul continues after death. It is no longer connected to his or her body once the final breaths are taken.
After death, the soul remains near the body for several days. Ultimately, an angel guides the soul to the spiritual world. The soul then faces judgment before finding its place in the afterlife. This belief about souls helps Zoroastrians find peace in the face of death. Because they know what comes next, they don’t fear the absence of life, no matter how grotesque the funeral customs might seem to outsiders.
What Happens in the Zoroastrian Afterlife?
There are a number of books about life after death, and Zoroastrians draw upon their sacred texts for answers about the afterlife. There’s a large focus on the role of free will when determining how one fares in the afterlife.
Throughout one’s life, they have the opportunity to do and say what they please. It is these actions that lead to one’s fate after death.
The first days after death
Immediately after death, the Zoroastrians believe the soul does not travel to the afterlife right away. Instead, it lingers near the body. It does so to mourn the separation from one’s body. This is a difficult process, and it takes time for the soul to find the pathway onwards.
After four days of staying in the material world, the soul finally travels to the spiritual realm. This is where all ancestors wait and watch over the living, but it’s not without its own trials.
Paradise vs. punishment
Similar to the Christian belief system about the afterlife, Zoroastrians face judgment in the spiritual realm. They reach a bridge known as the Bridge of Judgement. Those who led pure lives full of kindness and respect continue to paradise or heaven. This is a place where angels live, and it’s the best possible afterlife.
However, those who spent their lives sinning face a different fate. These souls are pushed toward punishment, an agonizing experience where souls stay until a final judgment day where God reviews their actions once again. Like in other faiths, the Zoroastrians believe hell is a place of chaos and suffering.
The role of free will
Ultimately, Zoroastrians believe you get what you give out. If you live a good life, you’ll face an even better life after death. If you make poor decisions, you’ll face consequences. This value on freewill brings comfort to many who practice this religion.
There is no fate or questioning what happens next. Everything is clear and straightforward, from the funeral practices to facing one’s judgment in the afterlife. Though it might sound morbid to outsiders, this is a way many find peace with the idea of mortality.
How Do Zoroastrians Bury and Remember the Deceased?
Zoroastrian burial practices connect with their ideas about death and what comes next. Because they believe the body immediately separates from the soul at the time of death, they are not afraid to take such extreme measures to ensure the bodies of the dead don’t contaminate the world around them.
Mortal life is believed to be short. It matters more how one lives their life than what happens after. By focusing on connecting with the community, a life of service, and family bonds, they ensure a happy afterlife in paradise. There’s no fear about their body’s fate in the Tower of Shadows because the soul is long gone by then.
Honoring the dead
Unlike in other religions, there is no fear about one’s loved ones after death. No matter which afterlife the soul reaches, this individual does not disappear after death. Their soul exists with God, and this is a continuous state until the end of time.
They do not mourn their dead. They find comfort knowing their soul is at peace, no matter where it may be. In addition, because they are familiar with the choices their loved one made on earth, it’s easier to guess which afterlife they faced. This could also be a form of acceptance.
Zoroastrians use memorial stones for their loved ones. This lists their two “birthdays.” The first is the date they were born, and the second is the date of one’s death. Since this was their birth into the afterlife, it’s also seen as a celebratory occasion.
Adapting to modern times
It’s important to note that many Zoroastrians are rapidly adapting their ancient beliefs about funeral practices and the afterlife to suit modern times. While they still believe in judgment, paradise, and hell, many are turning to burials or cremation for the dead.
As you might expect, it’s not as practical today to lay the deceased on a Tower of Shadows. There has been much controversy over this in recent years. As a result, Zoroastrians are taking measures to preserve their beliefs and practices in new ways.
Zoroastrians and the Persistence of the Soul
Zoroastrians, though fewer in numbers than ever before, hold onto their ancient beliefs when it comes to death and the afterlife. Though they go to extremes to dispose of their dead, they do so because they believe so firmly in the persistence of the soul.
For these believers, life doesn’t stop at death. Souls continue through time, neverending. They reach their final resting place based on the free will of the living, and this is what sets Zoroastrians apart. Though often misunderstood, it’s easy to see how this was the foundation on which today’s most popular religions formed their own ideas of the afterlife.
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- Guzder, Deena. “The Last of the Zoroastrians.” Time. 9 December 2008. Time.com.
- “Zoroastrian funerals.” BBC. 10 February 2009. BBC.co.uk.
- “Zoroastrianism.” History. 8 October 2019. History.com.