Humans have some pretty interesting views on death, and what it means for us. We have come up with rituals and ceremonies for thousands of years to try to help the dead find their way through the afterlife, or to prevent demonic take overs of some kind. Well this is probably one way of disposing of the dead that you have never heard of. It involves a religious sect of people who call themselves Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians have a very complex set of beliefs, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort for me to try to explain what they are, and the back stories that are involved with them. It is one of the worlds oldest religions however, getting its start in Iran sometime in the second millennium BCE. It was started by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, and was actually the official religion of the Iranian empire until Islam suspended it in the 7th century AD. One of the most interesting things about this religion, and that is saying something because it is pretty bizarre, is the use of ritual exposure on their dead. They are actually one of the only religions left in the world who practice this, and only sects located within the Indian subcontinent still actually do this. So what is ritual exposure you ask? Check out the pictures below and find out!
This structure is part of the Zoroastrians ritual process for their dead. It is known in the religion as something called a “Tower of Silence.”
As I mentioned above, “ritual exposure was a big part of the Zoroastrian religion. It was used from the time the religion was started, however Towers of Silence did not start popping up until early in the 9th century.
The rituals surrounding the exposure that the Zoroastrians practiced dates to sometimes between the 3rd and 7th century BCE.
Well Zoroastrians believed that dead bodies were symbols of decay. It is actually believed that a corpse demon rushes into a dead body and causes decay in everything it comes in contact with. Since these people believe that Earth and fire are considered sacred to the religion, a corpse could not be allowed to pollute any of them. Thus, burial and cremation were not options for the people who followed Zoroastrianism. This is what gave rise to the practice of ritual exposure.
The towers themselves are actually very simple and modest. They definitely stand out against the desert landscape of Iran however.
So what exactly is “ritual exposure”? It is the practice of allowing a corpse to be exposed to the elements, as well as carrion birds.
The layout of these structures is rather unique. A high circular wall rings the entire site. Concentric circles make up the inside, with bodies being placed in each other of the rectangles that ring the outside of the circles. Men are placed on the top circle, women on the second, and children on the third.
These places are actually known by the Persian name of Dakhma, or “Place for the dead”.
I mentioned carrion bird earlier. These birds that eat the flesh of already dead animals. A more common name for them is scavenger birds. These birds would be used to help with the ritual exposure process. They would pick the flesh off the bones of the dead bodies laid in the tower.
The sun and wind were also used to accelerate the decaying process, slowly deteriorating flesh and bleaching the bone till it was white. The rings inside the structure were angled downward to allow bodily fluids and other parts to slide down into the center of the pit.
Once the ritual exposure process is complete, the bodies are pushed into an ossuary pit in the center of the tower. The whole ritual exposure process can take up to a year. Aided by Lime, the bodies eventually disintegrate in the ossuary pit. Using run-off water, the remaining material is then siphoned through multiple coal and sand filters before it is eventually washed out to sea.
Here you can see a body being “purified” so to speak by carrion birds. These birds have developed an understanding of what happens at these places. They will actually hang out around the towers hoping for an easy meal.
This is what the inside of an ossuary pit can look like after extended use. There hundreds of skulls in this small picture alone. Overtime even these bones will break down and return to the Earth.
The only people who are allowed to enter these sacred places are people called nusessalars. The name comes from the contraction of the two words caretaker (-salar) of potential pollutants (nasa-).
Iran gradually discontinued its use of these ritual sites throughout the 20th century. There are still towers located throughout India however. With the expansion of the cities though, they are much closer to population centers than before. They are separated from the metropolitan areas by gardens or forests however. In the Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, the exposure of ones body after death is actually considered the person’s final act of charity, which is feeding the birds what otherwise would have been destroyed.