10 Facts About Zoroastrian Funerals, Where They Feed The Dead To Vultures On Towers

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 once 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. In short, Zoroastrians need to dispose of their departed quickly and in a way that defiles as little of the material world as possible. The Towers of Silence work because of the exposure to the sun (but mostly because of the vultures - just like the Buddhist practice of Sky Burial.) Zoroastrians are pretty serious about this ritual, to the point that in the past they've considered it a meritorious action to dig up bodies and properly dispose of them. In locations where burial by exposure is illegal or too difficult, however, Zoroastrians turn to more traditional methods like cremation.


Photo: Julia Maudlin / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • They Feed Their Dead Bodies To Vultures On Top Of Towers

    They Feed Their Dead Bodies To Vultures On Top Of Towers
    Photo: Cornelius Brown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Vultures are a big part of Zoroastrian funerals. All you have to do is set a dead body out in the sun on a Tower of Silence 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

    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 goodness. 

  • Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Are Banned Almost Everywhere

    Towers of Silence aren't 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 upsetting 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.

    In Iran, where Parsi cultures originated, Towers of Silence were banned in the '70s for various reasons. One place remains for a traditional Zoroastrian funeral: India.

  • Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Are Legal In Mumbai

    Traditional Zoroastrian Funerals Are Legal In Mumbai
    Photo: Frederic Courtland Penfield / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    India is one of the few places where it's still possible to secure a traditional and legal Zoroastrian 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. 


  • The Lack Vultures In Mumbai Causes Issues

    The Lack Vultures In Mumbai Causes Issues
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There is a slight problem with the vulture solution in Mumbai; namely, there are not enough vultures anymore. A drug called Diclofenac, developed as a painkiller for livestock, ended up accidentally decimating the vulture population in the area before it was banned in 2006. This unfortunate shortage of birds poses a significant problem for Zoroastrian funerals, as it's hard to beat the 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.

  • Corpses Are First Bathed In Bull's Urine

    When a Zoroastrian dies, the community doesn't waste much time getting the body ready for the tower. Step one is to put the body on a stone platform and give it a ritual bath with water and gomez -  bull's urine (which also plays a part in other Zoroastrian purification rituals). After the funeral, the mourners will also wash with bull's urine.

    What's the reason for the urine? Believe it or not, it's been thought of as a cleansing agent. Urine was used for millennia as a disinfectant due to its ammonia content, and this led to its adoption in ritual ceremonies like those followed in Zoroastrianism.

  • Zoroastrians Believe Death Is A Literal Demon

    Zoroastrians Believe Death Is A Literal Demon
    Photo: Unknown Calligrapher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    According to certain Zoroastrian scriptures, death is the work of a demon that overpowers a person and replaces their living body with dead matter and putrefaction. This corpse demon or Nasu is the embodiment of decay and must be dealt with as fast as possible.

    This should make it clear why Zoroastrians want to make quick work of funerals and dead bodies - there's a demon present, right there inside the corpse, and it would like nothing more than to share its rot with as many people as it can. It has to be contained for fear that its impurity might spread.