Have you ever wondered what death and dying rituals look like in different cultures? This is often one of the best ways to get to know how other parts of the world think about death and what comes after. One particular religion has a unique practice for the dead, and this has led to a lot of confusion from outsiders. Zoroastrian funerals are not like anything you might expect, but they can be just as meaningful.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Zoroastrianism?
- Zoroastrian Views of Death and Dying
- Traditions for a Zoroastrian Funeral
- Zoroastrian Burial Customs
- Zoroastrian Mourning Rituals and Honoring the Dead
Whether you’re interested in Zoroastrianism or you’re attending a Zoroastrian funeral, this guide is for you. Zoroastrianism is based in Iran, and it’s actually one of the world’s oldest religions to be practiced continuously. Based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, there’s a lot we can learn by delving into these funeral traditions.
What Is Zoroastrianism?
First, since this religion isn’t widely known in many parts of the globe, it’s important to understand the basics of Zoroastrianism. One of the oldest monotheistic religions, it began in ancient Persia. In Zoroastrianism, followers praise only a single prophet.
Dating back to the sixth century, Zoroastrianism was founded by a prophet who taught about the highest god and his clash with the Destructive Spirit. These teachings spread across Persia and the entire region. In this religion, people are expected to express their faith in the one deity through Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.
Though an ancient religion, Zoroastrianism is still practiced today. Most followers live in India, and they’re divided into two main communities: the Parsis and Iranis. These both emigrated from Persia but in different time periods. Zoroastrian believers also live in Iran, Kurdistan, and immigrant communities throughout the world.
Zoroastrian Views of Death and Dying
With that in mind, how do Zoroastrians view death and dying? The Zoroastrian afterlife isn’t the same as our western counterpart. The main thing to know about Zoroastrian belief is that it centers around free will. If you don’t live a free, fulfilling life, you run the risk of getting tangled in deceit and evil works. This is why it’s important to do Good Deeds and to speak Good Words.
If a practicer followed these rules, he or she would be rewarded in the afterlife. The spirit was sent by a higher power into a human body to choose between good and evil in the world. At the time of death, the soul lingers on earth for three days. This is when the gods evaluate the life of the deceased.
Similar to judgment in front of the Christian God, justified souls are met with paradise. This was called the “House of Song.” Those who didn’t live just lives would go to the “House of Lies” where they faced eternal torment and loneliness. There were different levels of paradise and punishment depending on how one lived his or her life. However, there was no such thing as an eternal punishment. A messiah would come in time to reunite all souls and destroy the darkness.
The fleeting nature of life
Because life is only a temporary part of the Zoroastrian spiritual experience, death is not something to mourn. This is why many Zoroastrian funeral elements seem strange to outsiders, since they don’t reflect the grief we think of in other religions. In this belief system, funerals are quiet, quick affairs.
Traditionally, corpses were left exposed in structures known as Towers of Silence. Because the human body was considered unhealthy and impure without a spirit, it was kept away from the clean earth in a high tower away from the community. The bodies were left for animals and birds, and the bones were interred. Today, Towers of Silence are rare, and many Zoroastrians have adapted to more modern funeral practices.
Traditions for a Zoroastrian Funeral
Because most modern countries don’t allow Towers of Silence, traditional practices vary amongst communities. In general, some things remain the same across practitioners, however.
Order of service
As soon as someone passes, Zoroastrians act quickly. It’s believed that death is impure and that this impurity transfers to anything the body touches. This is why it is supposed to spend as little time within a community as possible. The body is disposed of within two to three days with the following order of service.
- Cleansing: First, the body is cleansed in preparation for disposition. Traditionally, it was given a ritual bath in water and bull’s urine.
- Dogs: In traditional communities, a dog is brought before the corpse for a ritual known as sagdid. This stands for “gaze of the dog.” Because dogs are believed to scare away demons, this purifies the body.
- Funeral: A hall is prepared in the mortuary for those who wish to pay respects. Two priests conduct a funeral service with prayers, incense, and final respects.
- Wrapping: Before the deceased is removed from the community, the body is wrapped in kusti. These are white cotton wraps. The eldest son or daughter is traditionally the one to perform the wrapping, though it can be done by any family member.
- Nasa-salars: In most funeral traditions, family or friends of the deceased carry the body to its final resting place. In Zoroastrianism, this step is done by nasa-salars, or known pall-bearers. This term means “caretaker,” and this is an esteemed honor.
- Tower of silence: Finally, the body is taken to a tower of silence or its final resting place. This takes place before sunset so the body can be bathed in sunlight. The cloth wrappings are removed by the nasa-salars and the body is left to the elements.
Families pray for the soul of the deceased throughout the funeral and even after. While the body is placed in the Tower of Silence, the family remains in a separate area outside known as a prayer hall. They also continue to pray for the first several days after the passing of a loved one. This is during the time the loved one faces their judgment in the afterlife.
Once the journey to the afterlife is complete (three to four days), it’s no longer appropriate to pray for the deceased. In this faith, death is seen as a natural part of life. It’s not something to mourn or worry about. The prayers said during these days include:
- Padyab Kushti (cleansing prayer)
- Sarosh Baj (a prayer to god)
- Vispa Humata (a prayer for good thoughts)
- Patest Ravan-ni (an atonement prayer)
Zoroastrian Burial Customs
The most traditional Zoroastrian burial custom is the use of Towers of Silence. However, as you might expect, these are not legal or practical in most parts of the world. While some ancient Towers of Silence remain in many parts of the world, they’re no longer in use today. The only country in the world where these remain legal is India, the country with the most practicing Zoroastrians.
Still, despite legality, Towers of Silence have many challenges. Not only are vulture populations in decline, but cities are becoming more modern. It’s no longer practical to have bodies exposed to the elements in large cities, and the boom in population doesn’t help. Instead, many Zoroastrians across the world are adapting to modern forms of final farewells.
What happens to Zoroastrians who don’t live near a Tower of Silence? In this case, the most common choice is cremation. Though not accepted by traditional Zoroastrianism, more progressive branches are open to this modern alternative. Similarly, some choose to bury the dead in a grave lined with concrete. This protects the earth from impurity while still allowing the body to decompose naturally.
For the communities in India that still use Towers of Silence, they take greater preparations. For example, solar concentrators are used within the structures to focus the heat on new bodies. This speeds the dehydration and decomposition process, but it’s far from perfect. Like all religions and traditions, Zoroastrians continue to adapt to modern demands.
Zoroastrian Mourning Rituals and Honoring the Dead
Finally, when you wonder what to expect at a funeral, you want to know about mourning rituals. In the Zoroastrian religion, it’s not appropriate to express grief outwardly. These are somber yet mild occasions, and they aren’t a time for emotional outbursts. Because the process of decomposition is seen as impure, it’s important for families to avoid touching the dead or interacting with the body unnecessarily.
The best way to honor the dead in Zoroastrian communities is to say prayers and be there for the family of the deceased. Death is a natural part of life. Though it’s a goodbye, it’s not forever. The soul reunites with its family again in the afterlife, and this is not a reason to mourn. Prayers are said for purity within the first 4 days of death. After this, mourning is no longer a common cultural practice.
If a family does choose to mourn, it’s done quietly and at home. There are no other rituals surrounding death and dying after the soul has moved on to the afterlife. Families do not visit Towers of Silence to honor loved ones, and there is no more discussion of the dead.
Death Through the Lens of Zoroastrianism
It might be jarring to learn of Zoroastrian funeral customs if this is a new concept to you. From an outsider’s perspective, the practice of placing the dead within Towers of Silence can sound extreme. In reality, it’s a symbol of returning bodies to nature.
Ultimately, it’s important to treat all perspectives of death with kindness and an open mind. In a culture that’s secretive about what goes on behind funeral home doors, the Zoroastrian religion paints a different picture of acceptance to death.