Disclaimer: Originally published in April 2017. It is being republished since it still remains an interesting topic till today.
We all know that Parsis do not bury or cremate their dead.
They have their own belief system which does not allow them to do either. The Parsis, instead, have their own structure called “Tower of Silence” or dakhma where the dead lie in peace. The carcass is left to be eaten by vultures.
However, this method of disposing the dead is not being carried out recently. The Parsis are being forced to either bury or cremate their dead, although it desecrates the entire Zoroastrian system of disposing the dead.
We demystify the changing funeral pattern here:
Why do Parsis dispose their dead the way they do?
According to Zoroastrianism, life is an endless struggle between Light (Ohrmazd, or Ahura Mazda) and the Dark (Ahriman, or Angra Mainyu).
When a person dies, s/he can no longer fight the dark. Therefore, the body is consumed by dark forces. The elements like fire, earth and water are sacred to Zoroastrian philosophy.
Cremation or burial or even leaving the bodies in the sea is not encouraged because it is believed that the darkness which has consumed the body will now pollute these elements.
Parsis keep their dead in the dakhma where they can be safely disposed by the hands of nature – by being slowly eaten away by vultures till the body no longer exists.
Giving the body away to animals to feed on (especially vultures) is also considered an individual’s final act of charity.
Why is the funeral pattern changing?
Traditionally, the bodies of the dead were kept in the dakhma to be consumed by vultures.
Today, that is no longer possible.
The reason is not the extinction of these birds due to urbanisation, but poisoning. Yep.
Diclofenac was used to treat cattle fevers and inflammations in the 1980s, which proved toxic to vultures who fed on their carcasses. Vultures had been disappearing slowly until there is not much number now which can consume the dead.
With the dwindling number of vultures, there is no other way for the Parsis.
What are the alternatives?
Electric crematoriums. Most Parsis are flocking there because of the inefficiency of dakhmas.
There is no choice left.
Attempts were made to breed vultures but it did not succeed. The proportion of cremation among Parsis has risen from 6% to 15% and it is not going to drop any time soon.
However, electric crematoriums are not the proper alternative to Parsis, and this is a sentiment that many priests echo.
1. Fire is sacred (as even their temples are dedicated to the fire – the Fire Temples). Cremation is then another way of desecrating the fire.
2. Electric crematoriums are mostly cooped-up, and do not provide a peaceful environment to carry out the four-day ritual to ensure the soul of the dead reaches heaven. Many priests refuse to pray for the dead if they learn that the body has to be cremated or buried.
Parsis are increasingly demanding for separate prayer halls where they can continue with rituals of the dead. There is a 1.5 crore prayer hall that will be erected in Doongerwadi where the majority of Parsi population in Mumbai lives.
What is alarming from this situation is definitely the condition of vultures, and how chemical waste – even if it is a residue can adversely affect the animal population.
Chemical waste, especially bio-medical waste. Although Bio-medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998 have laid down certain limits for harmful pharma waste, but these regulations are seldom abode by.
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