Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On the Zoroastrian (Parsee) Funeral Rite: Vultures Devour the Dead

For centuries, Zoroastrians (Parsees in modern parlance) put their dead on “towers of silence” in Mumbai so the corpses could be “disposed of” by vultures. It was believed that burial or cremation would pollute the elements of air, earth, fire and water. Perhaps the discomfort was the thought that the material bodies associated with souls, which are of air, would be mixed in with inanimate matter that has no such association (i.e., soil). In Zoroastrianism, for the soul or mind to be free of matter—even that of one’s body—is an ideal even if it can be experienced only in the last few seconds of one’s life.

The top of a tower of silence used by the Parsees. (Image Source: NYT)

Even in the West, not many people relish the idea that their bodies will be placed under ground one day. The tradition whereby married couples are buried together must be strange for the couples themselves to contemplate while alive. It is not as though two bodies underground can have any inkling even of <i>being</i>, not to mention being next to a loved one. In the following poem, Oscar Wilde romanticizes what being buried must be like.

"Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death's house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost

The anticipation of one’s body being devoured by vultures can hardly be likened to such terms, even if the practice does not pollute the four basic elements. It is amazing how much projection goes on to cover the sheer non-existence that goes with actual death. Love may be always with you, as long as you are you, but you yourself will not always be so neither, therefore, will love.

Faced with the end of one’s own existence, a person may turn to religion, extending it beyond transcendent religious experience to a metaphysical realm wherein Plato’s idea of the immortality of the soul—a philosophical idea making possible an epistemological idea. Presumably as the Parsee’s corpse is being picked apart by flesh-eating birds, the soul is at the very least not dependent on the body. Nevertheless, all of us tend to assume an ownership-affinity of sorts with our respective bodies while we are alive, so the thought of one’s corpse being eaten is nevertheless uncomfortable, to say the least.

In the case of the fewer than 70,000 Parsees in Mumbai, the restoration of the ancient practice dovetails with efforts by the government to get vultures off the endangered species list. India once had as many as 400 million vultures—that’s more than the U.S. population was at the turn of the twenty-first century. The birds benefited from the prohibition of cattle-slaughter until the use of diclofenac by veterinarians on the cows caused kidney-failure in the birds. Eventually, that drug was banned and a decade into the twenty-first century, the Indian government decided to combine forces with the Parsee to bring back the vultures from extinction by the construction of three aviaries. The birds would feed off the human corpses left atop three “towers of silence.” As per custom, the bodies of men, women, and children would be segregated on three concentric rings of marble slabs—the remaining bones of all of the bodies falling to the ground below.

In short, the restoration of an ancient religious custom went along with an environmentalist cause. Furthermore, in a nation of over a billion people, the land spared from cemetery usage could be added as yet another benefit. Indeed, it can be asked both in the East and West whether there is anything more to a cemetery hundreds of years old than the markers themselves. It is difficult indeed for us mere mortals to come to grips with the end of our own existence.

It is as though a premise of our experience were ongoing existence, so it is difficult for us even to contemplate our own non-existence. Into this existential angst, we have allowed religion to venture (or encroach) from its native <i>experiential </i>basis. That is to say, we have enabled religion to adjunct metaphysics onto the experiential to assuage our existential discomfort. We have done so for so long we assume that the metaphysical (e.g., the immortality of the soul) is an inherent aspect of religion. Even though death must inevitably befall us, it is difficult for us nonetheless to let ourselves go—we are so accustomed to our very existence as the substratum of our awareness, which in turn undergirds our perception and cognition of external objects and thoughts, respectively. It is difficult, therefore, for the Parsee to disentangle himself from that which will be devoured by the vultures, even if the practice obviates religious pollution.


Gardiner Harris, Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death,” The New York Times, November 29, 2012.