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When most people think about saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time, they imagine the funeral rites taking place next to a gravesite or a funeral pyre. Burials and cremation rituals are common practices all over the world, but there is one type of funeral that doesn't fit in with these practices at all. People who believe in the Zoroastrian faith practice open-air funerals. Keep reading to learn more about open-air funerals and the Zoroastrian faith.

What Is Zoroastrianism?

Zoroastrianism is an organized religion that has roots in ancient history and is still alive today. The origins of this religion go back thousands of years to a man named Zoroaster who lived in what is now present-day Iran. He encouraged people to view the universe as divided into good and evil with one deity overseeing the interactions between these forces, a deity called Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism is a very early monotheistic religion that shares traits with the Vedic religions of the ancient Indian subcontinent. Today, Zoroastrians live in Iran, India, and in small numbers in the US, Canada, and the UK. 

What Is an Open-Air Funeral?

Zoroastrians of the ancient past practiced an ancient type of burial rite called an open-air funeral, which is when a dead body is laid in the open air to decay. This burial rite is also called excarnation. Death is a crucial part of the cycle of life for human beings, and for Zoroastrians, dead bodies can easily pollute the earth, water, and other sacred elements if disposed of incorrectly.

Even cremation is not an appropriate way to dispose of dead bodies because fire is a pure element, and death is a corruption of the human body by evil forces, according to Zoroastrian beliefs. Thus, the only option is to isolate the dead body high off the ground on top of a tower-like structure called a dakhma where carrion birds can consume the body. Caretakers sweep the bones that remain into a pit at the center of the tower where time and the elements work to decay them into dust.

Why Are Carrion Birds Important?

In the Zoroastrian belief system, carrion birds such as vultures and other scavengers are the only creatures able to withstand the interaction with the dead. They are sacred creatures in this respect. 

In the past, carrion birds proliferated in their natural ecosystems. However, the population of vultures in India and Iran has declined dramatically since the 1950s due to poisoning. In India, 99.95% of all vultures have disappeared. This tragic decline in animal populations has harmed the Zoroastrian community.

Do Dakhmas Still Exist Today?

Considering the potential for open-air funerals to cause havoc among communities that don't practice this kind of ritual, many countries have put laws in place to stop this practice, but some dakhmas do still exist today. In Iran, existing dakhmas, also called towers of silence, are not used for open-air funerals but are still treated as sacred religious sites by the Zoroastrian community. Iranian Zoroastrians have instead turned to burying their deceased loved ones, though they do adapt gravesites to ensure that bodies cannot pollute the earth.

In India, towers of silence are still in use by the Parsi community, but without a significant population of vultures, the bodies laid to rest at the top of the towers of silence do not decay properly. Many people do then resort to burying their dead as well, but the dakhmas are still an important part of ritual life for the Parsi community in India.

This unique funeral practice has somehow survived through the centuries despite hardships. For Zoroastrians, an open-air funeral is also considered the final charitable act that an individual can take, offering the physical body to the natural world. 

Category: Funeral Faith

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