Zoroastrian View of Death

The Tower of Silence in Zoroastrianism

A Zoroastrian Tower of Silence (Dakhma), near Yazd, Iran, traditionally used for the ritual exposure of the dead to the sun and birds of prey
A Zoroastrian Tower of Silence (Dakhma), near Yazd, Iran, traditionally used for the ritual exposure of the dead to the sun and birds of prey.

 Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Zoroastrians strongly connect physical purity with spiritual purity. This is one of the reasons washing is such a central part of purification rituals. Conversely, physical corruption invites spiritual corruption. Decomposition is traditionally viewed as the work of a demon known as Druj-I-Nasush, and the corrupting influence of this process is viewed as contagious and spiritually dangerous. As such, Zoroastrian funeral customs are primarily focused on keeping contagion away from the community.

Preparation and Viewing of the Body

The body of the recently deceased is washed in gomez (unconsecrated bull’s urine) and water. Meanwhile, the clothes he will wear and the room in which he will lie before final disposal are also washed clean. The clothes will be disposed of afterward as contact with a corpse has permanently defiled them. The body is then placed on a clean white sheet and visitors are allowed to pay their respects, although they are forbidden to touch. A dog will twice be brought into the corpse’s presence to keep away demons in a ritual called sagdid.

While juddins, or non-Zoroastrians, are allowed to initially view the body and pay respects to it, they are generally not allowed to witness any of the actual funeral rituals.

Wards Against Contamination

Once the body is prepared, it is handed over to professional corpse-bearers, who are now the only people allowed to touch the corpse. Before attending to the corpse, the bearers will ritually wash and put on clean clothes in at attempt to stave off the worst of the corruption. The cloth on which the body rests is wound around it like a shroud, and then the body is placed either on a stone slab on or in a shallowly dug out space on the ground. Circles are drawn on the ground around the corpse as a spiritual barrier against corruption and as a warning for visitors to keep a safe distance.

Fire is also brought into the room and fed with fragrant woods such as frankincense and sandalwood. This too is meant to drive off corruption and disease.

Final Rites at The Tower of Silence

The body is traditionally moved within one day to the dakhma or Tower of Silence. The movement is always done during the day, and it always involves an even number of bearers, even if the dead is a child that could be carried by a single person. Mourners who follow the body also always travel in pairs, each pair holding a piece of cloth between them known as a paiwand.

A pair of priests makes prayers, and then all in attendance bow to the body out of respect. They wash with gomez and water before leaving the site and then take a regular bath when they return home. At the dakhma, the shroud and clothes are removed through the use of tools rather than bare hands and are then destroyed.

The dakhma is a wide tower with a platform open to the sky. Corpses are left on the platform to be picked clean by vultures, a process which only takes a few hours. This allows a body to be consumed before dangerous corruption sets in. The bodies are not placed on the ground because their presence would corrupt the earth. For the same reason, Zoroastrians do not cremate their dead, as it would corrupt the fire. The remaining bones are deposited into a pit at the base of the dakhma. Traditionally, Zoroastrians avoid both burial and cremation as methods of disposal because the body will desecrate the earth in which it is buried or the fire used to immolate it. However, Zoroastrians in many parts of the world have no access to dakhmas and have adapted, accepting burial and sometimes cremation as an alternative method of disposal.

Ritual Mourning and Remembrance After The Funeral

Prayers are regularly said for the dead for the first three days after death, for this is the time that the soul is understood to remain on earth. On the fourth day, the soul and its guardian fravashi ascend to Chinvat, the bridge of judgment. During this three-day mourning period, family and friends generally avoid eating meat, and no food is cooked in the house where the body was prepared. Instead, relatives prepare food in their own homes and bring it to the immediate family.

At the home, fragrant woods continue to be burnt for three days. In the winter, no one may enter the immediate area where the body rested for ten days and a lamp is left burning during this time. In summer this is done for thirty days.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "Zoroastrian View of Death." Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/zoroastrian-funerals-95949. Beyer, Catherine. (2020, August 28). Zoroastrian View of Death. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/zoroastrian-funerals-95949 Beyer, Catherine. "Zoroastrian View of Death." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/zoroastrian-funerals-95949 (accessed April 22, 2021).