Death in Zoroastrian belief and practice

Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the prophetic religions. The founder, Zoroaster, lived in North East Iran about 1200 B.C.E. (some older books date him later as sixth century B.C.E. but that view is no longer widely accepted by scholars). His teaching was the official state religion of three successive Iranian empires which stood astride the civilisations of East and West — the Achaemenids sixth-fourth centuries B.C.E.; the Parthians third century B.C.E. to third century C.E. and the Sasanians third to seventh centuries C.E. For over a thousand years, therefore, Zoroastrianism was the most powerful religion in the known world. After the Muslim invasion in the seventh century Zoroastrians have experienced over 1300 years of oppression and persecution. They have been forced to retreat into the protective obscurity of desert towns and villages. Gradually the numbers dwindled until now there are only approximately 30,000 Zoroastrians in Iran, the small but courageous remnant of the mighty religion.

The main base (in numerical terms) of the religion nowadays is in India. In the tenth century C.E. a small band of Zoroastrian exiles settled in India where they were known as Parsis (= Persians). The main centre of the community is Bombay, where they have achieved considerable wealth and power, but there are communities in the state of Gujarat, and various parts of India (e.g. Calcutta and Bangalore). Groups also travelled throughout much of the British Empire — Hong Kong, East Africa, Britain, then more recently into the U.S.A., Canada and Australia. Altogether there are now approximately 120,000— 130,000 Zoroastrians in the world, but at least the world’s oldest prophetic religion remains alive due to the stalwart faithfulness of its adherents.

The traditional understanding of death

Zoroastrians take seriously the belief in God (Ahura Mazda) as the good creator. If God is good, then he cannot be the source of any evil. All evil in the world, they believe, is a weapon of the Destructive Spirit (Angra Mainyu). The age-old problem of religions who believe in one creator God is — how can God be both all-loving and all-powerful in view of the suffering of the innocent? The traditional Christian answer is tjiat God permits Satan to attack man; the standard Islamic teaching is that God decrees all that happens — but Zoroastrians cannot accept that any evil can come from a good God. The Destructive Spirit, they believe, is an evil being, who instinctively tries to spoil, defile, destroy or kill all that is good.

Contrary to God’s creation of health, Evil produced disease; against beauty, ugliness; against light, darkness; against life, death. Death is the ultimate weapon with which Evil tries to destroy God’s Good Creation — plants, animals and mankind. A dead body is the scene of evil’s triumph; it is a focus where evil forces are powerfully present.

Belief in the afterlife

But death is not the end of the story, if it were that would represent the victory of evil over God’s creation. Zoroastrians believe that after death man’s soul hovers round the body for three days meditating on its past life. Then it proceeds to its judgment. Its good thoughts, words and deeds are put in one set of balances, the evil thoughts, words and deeds in the other. If the good outweigh the evil the soul is greeted by a beautiful maiden, the manifestation of the soul’s conscience, who leads it safely across the bridge of judgment to heaven. But the soul whose evil thoughts, words and deeds predominate is met by a foul, ugly old hag, the personification of its conscience, who leads it trembling to the bridge from where it falls into the dark deep abyss of hell.

But the stay in heaven and hell is not permanent. Zoroastrians believe that the purpose of punishment should be to reform. The purpose of an eternal hell cannot be to reform; such a concept is, therefore, immoral in Zoroastrian belief. The soul stays in heaven or hell until the end of world history, being rewarded or punished according to its merits. Then at the end of history a saviour will be born who will destroy the force of evil, raise the dead and introduce the final judgment. The first judgment is obviously of the soul alone, since the body can be seen to remain on earth. Because God created body as well as soul it is important that a person is judged and rewarded or punished in both aspects of his being. So after the second judgment the whole person, body and soul, goes to heaven or hell for appropriate reward or punishment. After this corrective treatment then the whole of mankind will dwell with God in the perfect blend of heaven and earth. The resurrection is therefore an essential doctrine in traditional Zoroastrian teaching because it facilitates judgement of the life in the divinely created body.

Funeral practices

In view of their beliefs about life, death and the afterlife how do Zoroastrians treat a corpse? Funeral practices have two basic aims (a) to restrict the forces of evil which are so powerfully present at what is considered evil’s temporary victory (b) to care for the soul of the deceased.

Nowadays Parsis remove the corpse from the home to a special bungalow (bungli) in the funeral grounds as soon as possible after death. There it is washed, a priest prays over it and a dog is brought in to guard people from the unseen spiritual forces of evil. A dog is a holy animal in Zoroastrianism because it shows the religious virtues of loyalty, affection and obedience. If possible the funeral takes place the same day, but never during the hours of darkness. The funeral rites begin with prayers offered in the same room as the body led by the priest and in front of a ritual fire, the living formless symbol of God. Only female relatives and friends are present during the prayers, the men wait outside. The funeral procession sets off. The corpse is wrapped in a clean but old white cloth — old because wastefulness is sinful; white the symbol of purity and the religion. It is carried on a metal bier by four corpse bearers (nasarsalas). They and the whole procession wear white and walk in pairs (in paiwand) linked together in protection against evil. The priest walks in paiwand with the dog leading the mourners. After the corpse has been laid on a slab and the face uncovered for relatives to take their leave the nasarsalas carry it into a daxma known by the British as ‘Towers of Silence’. These are round structures with 30 or 40 foot high walls. The nasarsalas enter up a flight of steps and through a high door. Inside a circular floor slopes down to a central pit. Three concentric circles are marked out on the floor, men are laid in the outer circle, women in the middle one and children in the inside one. The corpses are exposed naked for vultures to eat. Blood and juices drain away through channels. The bones powder in the hot sun and in due course are thrown into the central pit. Once the corpse has been taken into the daxma the relatives pray at a distance for about 30 minutes, roughly the length of time it takes for a vulture to consume the body.

When the family return home they wash, offer prayers and especially among the Parsis, it is customary to announce donations to charity in memory of the deceased. Annual rites are offered in memory of the dead, but in traditional Zoroastrian thought the dead are not thought of as remote. They are believed to be spiritually present at religious festivities, not with any sense of morbidness but rather sharing in the happiness of the living.

Explanation of the rites

At the level of official teaching the reason for the practice of this exposure of the dead is to avoid defiling God’s good creations of earth, fire and water by burial, cremation or disposal at sea. A dead body, as we have seen, is the triumph and presence of evil. The world is God’s creation, so man should try to keep it in what Zoroastrians believe is its natural state of health, beauty and cleanliness. To defile or corrupt it is sin — Zoroastrianism has been called the world’s first ecological religion.

At the popular level Parsis feel a sense of deep revulsion at any other form of disposal of the dead. Burial they find especially repugnant because it takes worms etc. years to accomplish what takes the vulture 30 minutes. Christian graveyards they consider very morbid and a waste of valuable land. The method of cremation in India they find distasteful, where the corpse is burned in. full public view, takes hours to achieve and can cause deep distress. Even the modern crematorium in Bombay they find unpleasant where the oldest son deals with the corpse and the burning can be seen. By contrast they consider that the daxmas are hygenic, discreet and conserve land. It is, they say, as natural for birds to eat the corpse as it is for man to eat meat. Zoroastrianism, having evolved in the harsh climate of the Asian Steppes, assumes people eat meat, because of the need for a high-protein diet.

I have, over the years, visited numerous daxmas and the practices with many Zoroastrians. To be frank I felt a sense of revulsion before my first visit. I had the fairly typical western horror at the mental image of the rite of exposure. Yet I found them to be centres of peace. They are places set apart, even in crowded, noisy Bombay the pea hens, lizards, creepers give an aura of naturalness. Indeed it is now a western graveyard which seems to me the more ghoulish. What is sad beyond words is the sensational journalism which has depicted insensitively the Zoroastrian practices. Time magazine, for example, ran an article with photographs from inside a daxma which caused deep distress to the community. A well known English evangelical publisher once illustrated an article of mine (without consultation) with a photograph of a half devoured corpse in a daxma. Leaving aside the question of how such a photograph was obtained, I was horror struck by the editor’s justification which was basically, ‘how can Zoroastrians object since it is something that they do’, though he admitted he would not publish a photograph of a Christian corpse in an advanced state of decay because it would cause offence.

Zoroastrian sensitivities are particularly acute among those living in the West. Parents anxious to help their young preserve their heritage are deeply troubled when they consider their religion is being presented to the public, and to their children, in a negative manner. But even deeper than that is the sense of spiritual loss at not being able to practice the religion as they know it, especially at a time of grief. In the diaspora communities, for example in Britain, there are no daxmas, so the corpse is buried, if possible in a stone coffin so that the pollution of death does not defile the earth, or more often cremation is practised. Naturally devout Zoroastrians feel the need to explain to themselves how this is not inconsistent with their beliefs and do so by saying that with modern western crematoria it is not the sacred flame but intense heat generated by electricity which consumes the corpse. In the course of my field work I have lived with Zoroastrian families in America and elsewhere at times of bereavement. The natural grief is compounded by the fact that the cherished rites they have known from childhood, whereby distress has been assuaged, which provide a catharsis for grief, are simply not possible. The daxmas and the temples where the higher ceremonies are performed are a world away. What has always been seen as ‘the proper’ way to show respect, to honour the departed, to worship God, cannot be followed through. At such times reason and theological logic are not the point, there can be a deep yearning to express the inexpressable emotions through hallowed practices. Journalists, or teachers, who treat of funeral customs insensitively can both threaten the religion of the young, and compound distress beyond words.


For pupils:

  • J.R. Hinnells, Persian Mythology, Hamlyn Press, 2nd revised edition 1985.
  • J.R. Hinnells, Spanning East and West, Open University course AD 208, (1978) ‘Man’s Religious Quest’, Unit 28 which includes many photographs of daxmas.
  • J. R. Hinnells, Zoroastrianism and the Parsis
  • Ward Lock Education, (1981) with an account of practices

For teachers

  • M. Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism, vol. I, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1976 includes a chapter on death and funerals.
  • M. Boyce, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism
  • Oxford, 1978 for modern Zoroastrian practice in Iran
  • M. Boyce, Zoroastrians: their religious beliefs and practices, Routledge, 1979, for a general account of the religion including changes in belief and practices associated with death
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