Following his visit to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple Leo's Rabbit, fascinated by this ancient Persian religion, was eager to explore further the principles and rituals of Zoroastrianism. In his pursuit of knowledge he travelled to dakhma, the original Zoroastrian burial place in Yazd, known otherwise as Towers of Silence. On his approach, he saw the two towers rising up from the desert (that's were Zoroastrians laid their dead leaving them to be consumed by the birds of prey) and a group of buildings at the base which provided shade and a place to rest and pray for the moaners.
Our usually talkative Rabbit walked around in silence, with his eyes wide open, contemplating the scenery and thinking of hundreds or maybe even thousands of people, who found their final resting place in here. If only the walls of these simple buildings could speak... They would've revealed a mystery of the ancient rituals and the gruesome scenes they've witnessed... Yes, 'gruesome' - that's exactly how Rabbit felt about the traditional Zoroastrian burial at first. He was horrified and shocked when he found out how the dead were disposed of, but when he explored the details and understood the reasons behind them, he became at ease about it. It made so much sense.
He already knew that Zoroastrians, same way as rabbits, live in harmony with the nature and they are very careful not to pollute or destroy the environment and its four elements: the earth, the air, the water and the fire. According to their beliefs, a body becomes impure at death, when the soul departs and evil spirits arrive to corrupt the flesh of the deceased. A dead body is imminently considered to be a possible source of contamination and disease. Zoroastrians acknowledge that whilst all the respect should be given to the deceased, no injury or harm should come to the living, and therefore their funeral customs are primarily focused on keeping contagion away from the community.
When a person passes away, like in many other cultures, family members gather to say their goodbyes and prayers, usually conducted by two priests, with the purifying flame burning throughout the ceremonies. Traditionally, the body of the deceased was thoroughly washed using gomez, containing bull's urine, and consequently acting as an antibacterial disinfectant. The ritual was especially important in the old days as a prevention of the spread of infectious diseases.
When the washing rituals and further prayers were completed, the clothed body of the deceased would have been handed over to the caretakers, traditionally called nasa salars. Rabbit was told that in Farsi 'nasa' refers to the 'agents of disease and contamination' and 'salar' means 'controller', therefore a 'nasa salar' would be someone responsible for preventing contamination and disease. Nasa salars themselves had to undergo a ritual bath and spiritual cleansing ceremonies. They wore white gloves and face masks, similar to those used by the surgeons.
After wrapping the body with the shroud, an even number of nasa salars carried the deceased to the Tower of Silence on an iron bier. The mourners, always travelling in pairs, followed with two officiating priests leading the procession.
Leo's Rabbit stood for a little while at the bottom of the stairs leading to the tower, and eventually hesitantly climbed the very stairs used by the nasa salars, still in operation just over 40 years ago.
Near the top of the tower, Rabbit stopped in front of a small chamber with two stone platforms visible through an open archway. He wandered what it was used for... An eager guide explained to him that a body would have been placed here, on one of the platforms, for a final Sagdid, a ritual confirming death. It was particularly important in the days before doctor-issued death certificates to ensure that a coma was not being mistaken for death and there are no signs of life. Sagdid ritual involved a specially trained dog able to sense death. If the dog stared steadily at the body, then the person was thought to be alive. If the dog did not look at the body, the passing away of the person was confirmed.
A sudden shiver passed through Rabbit's entire being when a thought occurred to him: 'What if the dog would have been wrong..?'
After a final Sagdid, the nasa-salars carried the deceased through a solid iron door into the tower (dakhma), a roofless circular structure surrounded by a 5-meters high wall. As Rabbit already learned, Zoroastrians don't place their deceased in the ground (the impurities present in the dead matter would corrupt the earth and the water) nor cremate them (the process would corrupt the fire and the air). Instead, the bodies of the dead were placed atop a tower (yes, the same tower our horrified Rabbit climbed today) to be feasted upon by birds of prey. Provided that the vultures are present in adequate numbers, the flesh would have been completely stripped from the bones in a matter of hours. The remaining skeleton was allowed for a few days to dry under the scorching sun before removal. Finally it was deposited into the deep well in the middle of the tower, with lime juice purred over it. The bones, being subject to air, water and heat, would completely dry and disintegrate.
While the body laid inside the tower, the family and friends who have accompanied the departed on their final journey to the dakhma, would retire to a prayer hall at the bottom of the tower and say their farewell prayers for the soul of the deceased. After the nasa-salars exit the tower, the moaners would return to their homes.
Keeping aside the gruesome imagery, Rabbit thought of the Zoroastrian way of disposing of the dead as a very ecological and natural way. Apparently, when a rabbit dies his body provides food to the other forest animals and insects, leaving only the bones to disintegrate. He also understood that the Zoroastrians consider the feeding of one’s dead body to the birds as person's final act of charity.
Since the 1970s, the use of dakhmas has been illegal in Iran. Zoroastrians adapted new burial methods and have moved to placing their dead beneath concrete, to keep out all contaminants. They still don't build monuments or mausoleums for the departed, but instead keep their memory alive in the hearts and prayers of their families and subsequent generations. In many Zoroastrian houses visited by Rabbit, there was a room especially dedicated to all the deceased family members, with their photographs on display and ever-burning candle. The remaining families were keen to describe to him the persons in the photographs and share some stories about the deceased. He was also told that the annual prayers and family gatherings in memory of the departed continue until 30 years after their death.
Rabbit thought that this is a better way to honour someone's life than a monument at a rarely visited cemetery. He also understood the meaning and the importance of his own little existence, with his purpose of keeping Leo's memory alive. He smiled to himself and looked up to the sky...
Leo's Rabbit 'lives' in my handbag and he travels with us everywhere we go. He has pictures taken at various locations, tourist attractions and places we visit. As a part of this blog we will describe Leo's Rabbit Travels to share our personal experiences from these visits. Hopefully couple of people (apart from us :-) ) will find it interesting and may even feel encouraged to visit one of Rabbit's destinations.