After Life &
Page 3. Mortuary. Methods of Laying the Dead to Rest. Memorial Prayers
In our discussion, a mortuary is any place, room or building, where bodies of the deceased are kept until they are laid to rest.
Immediately after its demise, the body of an individual is taken to a mortuary for the ritual bath and funeral services. The mortuary can be within a private home, a building within a housing complex, a neighbourhood building, or a building that is part of a tower of silence complex. The requirements of the mortuary room and the attached bathing area is the same whether the mortuary is a private or public place.
An important feature of an orthodox mortuary is that any surface or object with which the body of the deceased comes into contact after the first six hours of death, needs to be made of an impermeable non-porous material. Nowadays, with the availability of climate control, this stipulation ( based on when the body started to decompose in warm climates), can be relaxed somewhat. In all cases, the mortuary must be clean and sanitary.
Older large orthodox Zoroastrian homes had a room to be set aside for family funeral services. These were homes close to a tower of silence or the place where a body would eventually be laid to rest.
Neighbourhood Mortuaries / Nasa-Khana or Margzad
Some Zoroastrian residential complexes or neighbourhoods have a building called a nasa-khana (Parsi Gujerati) or margzad (Persian) both meaning a place for the deceased - a mortuary. These buildings have the necessary facilities to clean and house the body of the deceased.
Alternatively, some towns have a complex that includes a mortuary and homes for the nasa-salars, khandhias and their families.
|Bungli in Mumbai, India|
In India, bungalows called bunglis (that are in essence a temporary home with an attached mortuary), are part of some tower of silence complexes called a doongerwadi in India. Doongerwadis contain a tower of silence, surrounding gardens and bunglis. The bunglis consist of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen facilities, a dining room, a room to house the body of the deceased on the first day, a ritual bathing room with a stone platform upon which the corpse is first laid and washed, and a large hall for the funeral service that follows the ritual cleansing.
Methods of Laying the Dead to Rest
The guiding principle for the laying to rest of the dead body is that the environment (land, air, and water as well as the element of fire) should not be polluted when disposing of a dead body, and the living should be harmed in any way.
Cremation using fire pollutes the fire, the air, and at times river water as well. Burial without adequate lining of the grave, will pollute the ground, ground waters, and through rain water run off - the surrounding land.
The following methods are the least harmful and the most sanitary:
• Towers of Silence
• Stone, above ground level, tombs
• Impervious stone or concrete lined graves
Towers of Silence / Dakhma
|Disused tower in Yazd, Iran - view from the ground.|
In the foreground, are the khaiele, buildings belonging to individual communities
and used for monthly remembrance prayers
|Disused tower in Yazd, Iran - aerial view|
|Disused tower in Chilpik, Uzbekistan|
Towers of silence, or dakhmas, are squat circular walled stone structures, inside which bodies of the deceased are exposed to birds who eat the flesh. The bones that remain after the flesh is consumed, are dried and bleached by the sun. Coining of the term 'tower of silence' is attributed to Robert Murphy, who, in 1832, was a translator of the British colonial government in India.
The dried bones are collected and placed in a central well (also see ossuary below), where in dry climates, they naturally disintegrate to a powder. The disintegration is so complete, one well has only five feet of accumulated powder after forty years. No tombs or headstones mark the place where the bones are disposed.
The towers are built on hill tops and are often surrounded by lush gardens.
This method has several advantages:
• The method is ecologically sound especially in drier and rocky regions where fertile land is scarce and cemeteries can result in pollution and occupation of land more suitable for agricultural or residential purposes. In such regions scarce ground water sources are especially fragile and susceptible to pollution and contamination. Towers of silence use hills and any run-off water is treated before being released to the surrounding land. In any event, burial in desert or rocky mountainous regions can be particularly troublesome and shallow graves are often exposed by the elements.
• The method was the best system ancient Zoroastrians could use that acknowledged the sacredness of the elements of land, water, air and fire and the attendant imperatives not to pollute or defile these elements.
• Once a tower (that can last for hundreds of years) is constructed, it is an economical and egalitarian method of laying a body to rest and there is no difference due to status in the way the body is finally disposed. The remains of rich and the poor lie side-by-side on a common platform, meeting in death as one.
• As compared with insects consuming a body's flesh over several years when buried in the ground, consumption of the flesh by birds of the bodies is speedy provided birds of prey are present in adequate numbers. The birds can eat the flesh in less than half an hour. The skeletal remains are then dried and bleached by the sun.
• In feeding the birds, it is a final act of charity on behalf of the person being laid to rest.
|Gardens at the Mumbai, India tower grounds|
|Gardens at the Mumbai, India tower grounds|
|An old photo of the tower (top left) and grounds at Mumbai|
Entry to the tower is via steps that lead up to a massive iron door in the eastern side of the twenty five feet or eight meter high stone walls. The door provides access to a circular sloping platform about 300 feet or 100 metres in diameter. The platform is made from slabs of solid stone and slopes towards a central well.
The platform is divided into three concentric circles representing good thoughts, words and deeds. Bodies of children are placed in the inner circle. The middle circle is for the bodies of women, and the outer circle for the bodies of men. The bodies are placed in shallow depressions in the slabs of stone. There are numerous depressions in a row that allow bodies to be placed side-by-side.
|Plan of Malabar Hill Tower of Silence, Bombay (Mumbai), India|
Source: National Geographic, December 1905
Narrow channels connect the depressions in the rings to drain fluids to the central well. Between the three rings are three concentric raised ledges that serve to separate the rings and as a path. Rain water washes the slabs and drains into the central well via the channels.
|Inner platform at the disused Yazd, Iran tower, now open to tourists|
When there is adequate population of birds, the body is completely stripped of its flesh within a couple of hours (often sooner). The bones are allowed to dry and bleach in the sun.
Once the bones are completely stripped of their flesh either by birds or by rain and sun, the dried bleached bones are gathered by the attendants and placed in the central well where they reduce to a powder, a process sometimes aided with the addition of lime. As stated above, the disintegration of the bones is so complete, that after forty years, one tower's central well had only five feet of accumulated residue.
The central well goes down in depth to the base of the tower. At the base of the well are filter layers of sandstone, sand and charcoal. Fluids and rain water that collects in the well are filtered by these layers and drain through grates on the well's side into four underground channels, each sloping towards underground pits at four corners of the tower - just outside the its walls. The bottom of these pits also have a thick layer of sand covered with layers of sandstone and charcoal, which are replaced from time to time. The filtered water leaving the pits is clear and free or any contamination. In wet climates, gardens surrounding the towers absorb the filtered water.
The tower complex contains a small building called a sagri within which a fire is kept burning continuously.
In Iran, that is in Tehran, Kerman and Yazd, the customs employed were fairly similar to those described above (until the last operating dakhmas were shut down either because of disuse or by law in the 1970s - see stone / concrete protected graves below).
A video featuring an interview with an eighty-four year old salar, the person who helped carry the last body into the Yazd dakhma, can be seen at IranNegah.com.
In the interview, the salar said that each Yazd city neighbourhood (formerly villages around Yazd city) had a mortuary where the body of the deceased was bathed and wrapped in a shroud. When the body was brought to the dakhma, sixteen individuals (presumably men) carried the body to the top in teams of four individuals (taking turns). At the door of the dakhma, the body was placed on a platform after which the priest prayed for the departed's soul. The the two salars, took the body into the dakhma where the laid the body at its appointed place and removed the shrouds. After thirty or forty bodies were consumed by birds of pray, the bones were gathered and placed in the central ossuary pit. Acid was poured over the bones to aid their decomposition.
This method is not advisable when flesh-eating birds are not present in adequate numbers, when a suitable site such a hill top is not available, or when non-Zoroastrian neighbours or governments may not approve. In the 1930s, the Iranian government made the use of towers of silence illegal. The tower in Mumbai India is beset with a lack of birds. The presence of medication in the bodies of the deceased can result in the death of the birds.
The Zoroastrian community in Pune, India has come up with a creative solution given spreading urbanization and the lack of birds. The have placed "solar panels" that help direct the rays of the sun on the body, effectively cremating the body using the sun rather than a fire. This innovation is an extension of the khursheed nigerishn - a beholding by the sun and the drying of the bones.
[For information on dakhma ruins throughout the old Aryan Lands, please see are pages on the
Darband Dakhma &
The use of towers of silence or dakhmas is now only practiced by Zoroastrians in India - and there too, other methods are being explored and used. Among the many factors that are contributing to the decline in the use dakhmas by Zoroastrians are:
- the diaspora of Zoroastrians to countries where the practice is impractical or inappropriate,
- the encroachment of urban areas into the previously secluded dakhma locations,
- the excessive use of medical drugs for dying individuals - drugs that are toxic to birds, or
- a lack of birds in some locations, and
- a change in attitude among Zoroastrians.
If a Zoroastrian wants to maintain Zoroastrian principles in considering other options, a primary guiding principle is to ensure that the surrounding earth, water, and air are not polluted.
Stone / Concrete Protected Graves
|Zoroastrian Cemetery, Yazd, Iran|
In places where towers of silence are not an option, graves or burial chambers protected by slabs of stone or concrete are an option that Zoroastrians have used. In Iran, Europe and the Americas, the use of graves is common.
In Iran, the decision to stop the use of dakhmas and bury the dead, took place for the following considerations:
First, Muslims interpreted the consuming of the flesh by birds as a mutilation of the dead body - a practice prohibited by Islam. The dakhmas were repeatedly broken into by Muslims much to the dismay and humiliation of the community.
Second, while the towers had originally been built away from population centers, the spread of urban homes and construction brought the general population close to the dakhmas.
Third, the attitude of Iranian Zoroastrians has changed. With the migration of Zoroastrians from Yazd and Kerman to Tehran, a debated ensued between the anjumans (societies) of Yazd, Kerman, and Tehran. The less conservative Tehranis being in the majority, prevailed over the more orthodox Yazdis and Kermanis, constructing for themselves in 1937 a cemetery, an aramgah or place of rest, on the outskirts of Tehran at Ghassr-e Firouzeh (Firouzeh's Palace). The graves were lined with rocks and concrete to prevent contact of rotting flesh with the earth.
In 1939, Soroush Soroushian, head of Kerman's Zoroastrian Anjuman (Society), lead a move to establish a cemetery in Kerman. However, some Kermani Zoroastrians, as a matter of personal preference, continued to stipulate that their bodies be consigned to their dakhma, until that dakhma was finally closed in the 1960's. The Zoroastrians of Yazd, traditionally, the most orthodox of the Iranian Zoroastrians similarly established a cemetery in 1965 at the base of the Safaieh district dakhma hills, and it was not long before the Yazd city dakhmas stopped being used. Sharifabad, near Ardakan, seat of Yazdi Zoroastrian orthodoxy continued to use their dakhma into the 70s, when the Iranian government prevailed on the Zoroastrians to stop using the dakhmas and shut them down by law.
Farroukh Jorat an engineer from Baku Azerbaijan who led the construction of the
world's highest Atashgah, informs us that in Azerbaijan, corpses are not buried directly in ground, but are entombed in stoned lined and covered graves. This is done to prevent pollution of underground waters.
Once a body had been stripped of its flesh in a dakhma, the dried and bleached bones were not considered polluting. As a consequence, there were several options for the disposal of the bones.
The egalitarian, communal option was to place the bones in the dakhma's central pit, a communal ossuary, where the bones decomposed to a powder. Another option was to place the bones in a private ossuary - a stone or plaster box - and to then place the ossuary in a tomb or even in a grave. Yet another option, an option that we have only heard of in Greek literature and not in Zoroastrian tradition, was to coat the bones with wax before burial.
Additional Reading: Achaemenian Funerary Practices in Western Practices in Western Asia Minor By Dr Oric Basirov.
Ossuary / Ossuaries
An ossuary is a place to collect the bones of the dead. While often an ossuary is thought of as a box, it can also be a pit or a cave carved into a rock. In Iran, a place to collect bones is called an astudan - a place for the bones. In the Sogdian regions of Central Asia, it is called a tanbar.
An ossuary burial can be performed after exposing the body in a towers of silence (dakhma). The ancient residents of Sugd (Sughdha) and Chorasmia (Khvarizem) - present day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - collected the stripped and dried bones from the dakhma and placed them in an ossuary. The family of the deceased would then bury the ossuary or place it in a special area such as a miniature tomb.
The Sogdian and Chorasmian practice of using ossuaries is further described in our page on ossuaries.
If the local practice of Sogdians and Chorasmians was to used container ossuaries, some Persians (Iranians) developed another form of ossuary burial.
Stone and Cave Tombs
|Sassanid era ossuary tombs in|
a Khark Island cliff face
Persians are known to have used above ground stone tombs, and tombs carved out of the sides of stone cliffs, in which ossuaries containing the bones removed from the dakhma were placed. Alternatively, the cave itself could function as an ossuary.
Even though the tombs of royalty are ostentatious, the tombs have provided us invaluable information about the history of the times. The tomb of Persian Achaemenian king Darius I is at Naqsh-e-Rustam, located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis in Pars. It is part of a set of four Achaemenian dynasty tombs carved into the side of stone hills.
|Persian Achaemenian tombs at Naqsh-e-Rustam|
|Sogdian-Zoroastrian Funerary Couch from China at Miho Museum, Japan|
The couch holds a coffin
|Detail of Sogdian Funerary Couch Panel|
showing Zoroastrian priest before a fire
as the soul prepares to cross the Chinvat bridge
Some traders from Sugd or Sughdha - areas of present day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - who travelled and resided in what is China today, used the practice of funerary couches.
A funerary couch is an elevated stone bench on which a coffin was placed. It is assumed that the couch in turn was placed in an area such as a tomb.
The example of the late 6th to early 7th century ACE funerary couch shown here was found in northern China and dates back to the Sui period. The couch now resides in the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan (additional page).
The photograph of a panel from the couch show a scene with a priest wearing the padam (the white mask that Zoroastrian priests wear so as not to defile the sacred flame), a sagdid dog (a dog that is able to confirm death), and deceased souls crossing the Chinvat Bridge to the next life.
While the tower of silence method of laying to rest the body of the deceased and the disposal of the body draws the attention of non-Zoroastrians, it is the fate of the soul and remembrance of those who have passed away, that occupies the minds of Zoroastrians.
Those who have passed away are not memorialized by monuments, but in the prayers of Zoroastrians. Memorial prayers are recited both at the home of the deceased's family and at the fire temple on the tenth day after death, after a month, and then annually on the death anniversary of the deceased. The prayers are seen as an essential part of keeping the memory of the individual alive.
If Zoroastrians had lived according to the precepts of the faith as ashavans, their souls will have united with their other spiritual components, their mainyu or spirit, fravashi and khvarenah to become a united fravashi and a guardian angel. The fravashis of the departed are memorialized collectively and individually during the farvardigan, or all souls days, ten days at the end of the year dedicated to the remembrance of all souls - and during every major festivals, gahambars, jashans or thanksgiving ceremonies, and every rite of passage (even during the three days leading up to a marriage ceremony during the ceremony of varadh-patra).
Families are expected to memorize and record the names of their ancestors and name them during the memorial prayers.
We are the descendants of our ancestors. We are what they have made us and we carry their spiritual flame. The world is today built on the foundations they have laid. We would be remise to allow their memories to perish.
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