The Ecological Funeral

April 22, 2010 at 2:35 pm (Uncategorized)

An Essay in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day: April 22, 2010

The death of a grandparent is a difficult experience for most teenagers.  As a member of the small and dwindling Zoroastrian religion, it was all the prerequisite pain plus my first lesson in ancient environmentalism.

While most of my friends growing up on Long Island sat shiv’ah or attended wakes at funeral homes when a loved one passed away, I attended my grandfather’s funeral while on vacation with my parents in India.  The experience was beautiful, strange, and ecologically friendly.

Zoroastrianism, a pre-Christian, Persian faith, famous for monotheism and Freddie Mercury, embraces rituals which respect and celebrate all the natural elements.  Fire is a symbol of God, water is used to purify the body before worship, adherents face the sun to pray, and abundant flowers and fruit are mandatory at all formal ceremonies.  We eat the fruits after they are blessed as waste is frowned upon. You could say Zoroastrians were the first environmentalists.  Although all faiths have a history of embracing God’s creation, I dare to argue that none go as far as the unique Zoroastrian funeral.

In a large, private, lush green space in the middle of Mumbai’s bustling mega-city, my grandfather’s last rites were performed.   I remember his deceased body was gently placed on the ground and covered in a plain white sheet while the priest above him, also dressed in white, gave his last blessings.  It was my first time in Mumbai since I was eight-years old and I didn’t expect to be surrounded by peaceful trees in a small plot of the city that has escaped urbanization through the centuries.  My mother grieved and made her peace.  It was a simple, yet beautiful funeral consistent with Zoroastrian ideals. And then it got a little strange.

After the priest finished his last prayer which is believed to urge the soul into heaven, my grandfather’s body was carried deeper into the park with a select number of immediate family members following behind.  For the first time, I got as close as possible to Mumbai’s famous Towers of Silence, or dokhmas.  I had only read about the dokhmas in religious classes in New York, which are often described as large stone stadium-like structures that serve as the final resting place for Mumbai’s Zoroastrian community. 

As fire is a symbol of God, cremation goes against ritualistic purity, and burial sites can pollute the ground or create large cemeteries which take valuable land away from the living. It creates an interesting dilemma for a good Zoroastrian: what to do with your last piece of earthly waste? 

In the dokhma, the body is left exposed to the natural elements to decompose mostly by the sun and vultures.  Circle of life sounds more pleasing than composting.  Eventually, the bones are left and the area is cleaned by often poor Zoroastrians that are the only living souls allowed on the private territory. 

Before my grandfather was carried up to the dokhma, a trusty dog sniffed his body in a traditional part of the funeral. Before the days of improved medical science, dog, man’s best friend, was believed to bark if the unconscious body was still alive.  In my grandfather’s case, as in all modern-day funerals, the dog remained silent, tail down, and slowly walked away.

The dokhmas were outlawed long ago under Islamic rule in Iran, making the only active sites in the world in India.  But as Mumbai’s pollution crisis deepens the vultures are dying off themselves. The smog, coupled with a demographic crisis where Zoroastrian deaths far outnumber births, creates a difficult blockade in the circle of life.  Neighbors started to complain about the stench.  In 2001, solar panel reflectors were installed on the dokhmas to aid the decomposition process.  Nobody knows how many more decades can, or should, this elite community maintain its traditions on prime real estate as the needs of an overpopulated city, opportunist developers, and bureaucrats encroach on the borders. 

Back in the United States, a decade after the ecological funeral, my mother and I talked about how we could observe the tenets and spirit of religion without conflicting with the health and sanitation laws of the State of New York.  We concluded that a modern adaption would allow for donating all organs, eyes, and skin to any needy recipient as well as the cadaver to science research laboratories or medical schools.  It seems to be the best compromise for a modern-day Zoroastrian-American.  After all, it’s not in cold tombstones that loved ones reside– it’s in the center of the beating heart.

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