Some cultures have unique rituals that they perform when burying the dead, but a religious group called the Zoroastrians may have the most unusual of them all. The Zoroastrians’ religion is very complex, and it is said to be one of the world’s oldest religions.
It was put into practice in the second millennium BCE in Iran. Zoroaster, the Iranian prophet, founded the religion and it became the official religion of the Iranian empire until Islam was founded in the 7th century AD.
What is most interesting about this particular religion, though, is its practice of exposure of the dead. The Zoroastrians are actually one of the only religious groups in the world that still practice this bizarre ritual.
To conduct their ritual, they use what is called a Tower of Silence. The practice is formally called ritual exposure, and it has been used since the time the religion was founded. The Tower of Silence structures, however, did not start to become a part of the ceremony until the 9th century.
The ritual is performed because Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies are a symbol of decay, and after death, a demon enters a dead body and causes everything that comes in contact with it to decay. Zoroastrians believe that earth and fire are extremely sacred, so they could not bury a demon corpse in the earth or burn it with fire. Instead, they developed the practice of ritual exposure to get rid of decaying corpses.
Ritual exposure involves exposing a corpse to natural elements, and most importantly, carrion birds. The bodies of the dead would be placed in the Tower of Silence, which is a circular, modest structure with no roof. The tower includes rectangular shapes that cover the entire floor of the structure to form a ring. There are three levels to the structure, and men are placed on the first level, women are placed on the second, and children are placed on the third.
These rectangular indentations that the dead are placed inside are called Dakhmas, which means a place for the dead.
Once the bodies are placed in the Dakhmas, the carrion birds get to work in order to aid in the ritual exposure process. These birds are known for eating the flesh off of dead animals, so they would pick the flesh off of the dead bodies that were placed within the Tower of Silence. The sun and wind the bodies were exposed to also played a role in accelerating the decaying process. The bodies were placed at an angle, so any bodily fluids would slide downward into the center of the pit.
Once the entire ritual exposure process is complete, the decaying bodies are dumped into the pit in the center of the tower. The entire process can take up to a year, but once the bodies are dumped into the pit, they are disintegrated and then what is left of them is filtered with water and eventually drained out to sea.
The people of Iran stopped using this ritual during the 20th century; however, there are still towers located throughout India. The structures are typically separated from the metropolitan areas by gardens or rows of trees.