10 Facts on Zoroastrian Funerals, Where They Feed the Dead to Vultures on Towers  

Keith Burnside
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Zoroastrian funerals are pretty different from what's usually found in Western tradition. That's because in Zoroastrianism, the age-old Parsi religion, dead bodies don't go underground; instead, they go sunbathing on what's called a "Tower of Silence." That's weird, you might say. Why would anyone get rid of their dead like that?

The answer makes sense if you're aware that in Zoroastrianism, physical purity and spiritual purity are closely connected. Death is impure by default, as is anything that a dead body touches. This belief extends to virtually any physical element - burial "defiles" the ground, cremation defiles fire, burial at sea defiles the ocean, and so on. Zoroastrians are pretty serious about this, to the point that in the past they've considered it a meritorious action to dig up bodies and properly dispose of them.

In short, Zoroastrians need to dispose of their dead quickly and in a way that defiles as little of the material world as possible. The Towers of Silence are an easy get-out-of-defilement-free pass because of the exposure to the sun (but mostly because of the vultures - just like the Buddhist practice of Sky Burial.)

They Feed Their Dead Bodies to Corpses on Top of Towers
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Photo: Cornelius Brown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Vultures are a big part of the show at Zoroastrian funerals. All you have to do is set your dead body out in the sun and wait for the vultures, who are known for their efficiency when it comes to getting rid of dead bodies. It doesn't take a gaggle of them very long to reduce a human corpse to a pile of bones – they can do it in an hour or so. Think of vultures as the piranhas of the sky.

Sure, death by vulture might seem unorthodox, but it's not that bizarre if you think about it. You have to get rid of dead people somehow, and Zoroastrian funerals do it in a way that benefits other living creatures (i.e., giving the vultures an easy meal). In fact, feeding one's dead body to vultures is considered a Zoroastrian's final act of charity. It's a win-win all around.

Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Are Banned Almost Everywhere Due to the Dead Body Smell
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Photo:  Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Towers of Silence aren't common anymore, nor are they anywhere near as prevalent as they were two or three thousand years ago. For one thing, urbanization has made it difficult to continue the practice without pissing off a bunch of non-Zoroastrians in high-rises who insist on complaining about both sight and smell. For another, you can't legally have a Tower of Silence in many Western countries. Iran, where Parsi cultures originated, banned Towers of Silence in the '70s for various reasons, such as the fact that medical students were stealing dead Zoroastrians from the towers for dissection in order to circumvent a pesky Iranian law that prohibited human dissection. 

Well, have no fear, because there is one pretty good option if you're in the market for a traditional Zoroastrian funeral: India.

The Only Place Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Are Legal Is Mumbai
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Photo: Frederic Courtland Penfield/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

That's right, Zoroastrians around the world have the option of shipping their dead bodies to India, one of the few places where it's still possible to secure a traditional and legal funeral. The main place you can find Towers of Silence is on Malabar Hill in Mumbai, in the middle of a 54-acre garden called Doongerwadi. Here, six Towers of Silence and some conservative Parsi priests are available to give your corpse the very best Zoroastrian funeral around.

In case you're interested, here's a list of guidelines for Parsis deceased abroad.

Problem Is, There Aren't Many Vultures in Mumbai
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There is a slight problem with the vulture solution in Mumbai; namely, there are not enough vultures anymore. A drug called diclofenac, developed as an NSAID for cattle, ended up accidentally decimating the vulture population in the area before it was banned in 2006. This unfortunate shortage poses a significant problem for Zoroastrian funerals, as it's hard to beat the all-natural corpse disposal efficiency of vultures. Other birds of prey in the area can't even come close.

Mumbai's Parsi community is trying to speed things up by installing solar concentrators, which dehydrate dead bodies much faster than the unassisted sun. It's not ideal, but it's better than nothing.