The Zoroastrian / Mazdayasnian Death and Funeral Rites

The last religious event in a Mazdayasnian’s life is their death. When the death is not sudden, a priest comes to the dying individual to recite the Patet prayers, unless the individual is able to recite them unaided, and to provide them with Haoma juice if it is available, or pomegranate juice if it is not. A sudreh and simple white cotton clothes should be prepared to clothe them with after they die.

After the Mazdayasnian dies, their funeral is to be held as soon as possible unless refrigeration is available. After a period of six hours, the body becomes impure because it has begun to decompose, and it is to be avoided except by ritually purified handlers. All the actions in the funeral ceremonies are done by pairs who are connected both spiritually and physically through a means such as holding hands or some object such as a kusti or cloth. If the house is lacking the proper facilites, pall-bearers take the body to a mortuary. The pall-bearers prepare themselves for the task by taking a sacred bath and reciting a part of the Sraosh Baj prayer (known as “taking the Baj”). They wash the body, sometimes while wearing woolen gloves. First, they wash the body with gomez, unconsecrated white bull’s urine, which is a disinfectant. If gomez is unavailable, ash may be used. Next,  the body is washed with well water. Sometimes either the water or the gomez may be omitted.

After the washing, the body is dressed by family members with a sudreh, simple white cotton clothes, and a prayer cap. A family member ties a kusti around them while reciting the appropriate prayers. Then the body is carried to a hall and placed on a sheet on a bed or the floor. A fire is lit in the hall and kept burning for the duration of the funeral. It may be lit earlier or later, but it should be lit before the body is taken away. Incense is intermittently sprinkled on the fire. A lamp may be placed next to the head of the deceased.

Two family members approach the deceased, and one of them whispers the Ashem Vohu and the Ahuna Vairya in their ears.[1] Then they repeat the Ashem Vohu many times. Other family members may come and say farewell to the deceased. It is permissible for them to touch the body at this point. They are to avoid grieving, lest this should give the soul difficulties in the post-mortem state.

The body is placed on a slab of stone and cover it with a shroud, except for the face. In some places, an older method is used: the body is placed on a patch of ground dug in the house. The arms of the deceased are placed across their chest. Then the pall-bearers mark a space around the body which nobody else is allowed to pass. They may leave at this point and finish reciting the Sraosh Baj prayer.

An individual priest and/or someone else may stand by the fire and recite prayers. For the following part, however, two priests are needed. After performing a daily Gah prayer and the Padyab-kusti, the priests come to the edge of the markings around the body. They hold a cloth together, put on masks over their mouths, take the Baj, and begin to recite the Yasna from the beginning. During or after the recital, the pall-bearers enter with an iron bier, which they place beside the body. Once the priests get to the middle of Yasna 31:4, they stop briefly. They may perform the sagdid at this point, or they may perform it at another time. The sagdid is when a dog with two eye-like spots above its eyes is brought before the body to confirm the person’s death. If the dog stares steadily at the body, they are alive. Otherwise, they are confirmed dead.[2] After the break, the Yasna is  continued. The priests may recite other prayers as well, but the Yasna is primary. In particular, the Ahunavaiti Gatha is to be completed.

The following procedures may vary depending on how the body is going to be dealt with. The best Mazdayasnian way to deal with bodies is excarnation in a dakhma, know in English as a Tower of Silence. When a dakhma is used, the body should be brought there before sunset so that the body can be greeted by the sun.

At some point during or after the prayers, the pall-bearers place the body on the iron bier. Another sagdid is performed after the prayers, either at the mortuary or at the dakhma. Before the body is taken away, the funeral’s attendees may pass before the corpse one by one and respectfully bow before it.[3] The pall-bearers tie a string to the bier and wrap it around the bier seven times while repeating the Ahuna Vairya seven times. This is to protect the body from demons. The body is secured to the bier with a sheet or cloth straps.

The body, once taken from the house, is transferred to separate  pall-bearers who are specially designated to bring the body into the dakhma. As soon as the body is removed from the house or mortuary, the places where the body was placed and carried over are to be purified with Gomez or Nirangdin. The funeral procession follows the pall-bearers, and some of them may disperse. Those who leave are expected to ablute themselves before entering buildings. Those who do not leave go to a prayer hall.

The dakhma is built in an elevated and isolated place. It is round and made of stone, with a pit in the center and individual places for corpses around the circumference. The pall-bearers bring the  body up the steps on the East side of the dakhma to an iron door. Then they place it in its place inside and  strip it naked. While the pall-bearers are in the tower, the funeral’s attendees go to a nearby prayer hall and say farewell prayers. There is a continually burning fire or lamp in the hall, and the dakhma is visible from a window. After the pall-bearers are seen leaving the tower, the attendees may leave. The shroud and clothes used for the funeral are taken to a pit outside the dakhma. They are destroyed by nature, but the process may be expedited with acid. After these tasks are done, the pall-bearers wash themselves with gomez and water, perform the Padyab-kusti, and may say the Patet. Then they all leave. Everyone should bathe.

During the next three days, the family of the deceased makes special prayers for their soul until 3:30 A.M. on the fourth day, when the soul crosses the Chinavat bridge. A fire is usually kept burning for three days at the spot where the body was placed before it was taken to the dakhma. The spot is to be avoided for ten days if it is  winter and thirty days if it is summer, and during this period a lamp should be kept burning. The family and close friends of the deceased also stop eating meat for three days.

The prayers during this period are done in the khshnuman (in the name and honor, for the pleasure) of Sraosha, who is the soul’s protector for these three days.  For every Gah, at least two priests say the Sraosh Baj and the Patet with the family of the deceased. For the Aiwisruthem Gah, the priests perform the Afrinagan. These Gah prayers are done at the house of the deceased. A number of prayers are also done at the Fire Temple for three days and nights.

During the Uzerin Gah on the third day, the Uthamnu is performed. The friends and family of the deceased should all be present. The protection of Sraosha is implored for the deceased, and charities are announced. These are donations for the needy on behalf of the deceased. If the person was exceptionally great and benefited the community, the head priest or his presentative proposes to have their name remembered in every public ceremony. Unless there is vocal objection, the proposal is implemented. The remembrance may be limited to the locality of the person, or it may spread throughout the country and abroad.

If the deceased is at least 15 and has no son, they are given one. The adopted son usually belongs to a closely related family. This son has the duty of treating his post-mortem-foster-father as he would treat his own father.

On the dawn of the fourth day, the first Baj is recited in the khshnuman of two angels associated with Judgment, Rashnu and Astad. The second is  recited in the khshnuman of Rama Khvastra (Vae), the angel of ether. The third is recited in the khshnuman of the fravashis of all the righteous. As it is recited, a priest consecrates a set of white clothes and sacrificial items, which are  gifted to him or to the poor. The fourth Baj is recited in the khshnuman of Sraosha.

The Afrinagan is performed on the fourth, tenth, and thirtieth days after an individual passes, as well as on the first anniversary of their death. Charity is often given on these days.

After the deceased’s flesh is consumed by birds in the dakhma, the sun-dried bones may be placed in a well in the middle of the dakhma, where they disintegrate. They may also be put in an ossuary which is then buried in a tomb or grave. If the usage of a dakhma is not possible, the body may be buried in a tomb or grave in a tightly sealed coffin. Cremation is a sin, because it pollutes the fire, the air, and sometimes water.

[1]   In J.J. Modi’s description, only the recital of the Ashem Vohu is mentioned.

[2]   According to J.J. Modi, the sagdid is to be repeated once in every Gah (prayer-period) in which the corpse is in the building.

[3]   According to J.J. Modi, the females assemble inside, and the men outside when this is done.