Funeral billboards raise cash, ire in India

Some might see the towering billboards that rise out of a centuries-old Bombay funeral ground as a message from beyond the grave.

But the signs — which exhort motorists to “Rev up your night life” by buying a popular car — have bitterly divided the city’s Parsi community since they were erected last week, with many people saying they desecrate the sanctity of the place.

Trustees of the funeral ground, who authorized the billboards, say they are needed to raise cash to maintain the Tower of Silence where Parsis, followers of the Bronze Age Persian prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, have wrapped their dead in white muslin and left them to be devoured by vultures since 1673.

Parsis, also known as Zoroastrians, worship fire and believe that cremation is a mortal sin and that burial pollutes the Earth. So they leave their dead atop the towers to be devoured by vultures, a process they say releases the deceased’s spirit.

“I have told people who are objecting, bring me 3,000,000 rupees ($73,000) a year and I will stop the advertisements,” said Burjor Antia, a trustee with the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, or council governing the community’s affairs.

“But nobody brings the money,” he said Tuesday.

Antia said the money is needed to maintain the lush 55-acre cemetery that begins at Bombay’s posh Kemps Corner area and spreads across Malabar Hill, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood.

“We are not profiting from this; it is proper utilization of land,” he said, adding that the billboards should not offend people because they are near the ground’s entrance and not near the “dhokma,” or towers, in which the dead are placed.

But this has not mollified members of the community, who say it is wrong to profit from the sacred ground where they believe the dead lie waiting for their souls to be freed.

“I am very, very upset. How can you commercialize a heritage ground that has existed for more than 300 years?” Anahita Pundole said.

Original article here

  • Dr. Minoo C Dumasia

    Dear Sirs,
    Like most Parsees, my initial reaction on reading about the hoardings being put up at Doongerwadi and of commercialisation to raise cash for the upkeep of the sacred funeral site– was of horror, disgust and anger. But then reality sunk in.

    I live in UK. If I die here, the best resting place is a plot in the section reserved for people of Zoroastrian faith at the Brookwood Cemetery, Woking, Surrey GU24 0BL. However, the cost of GRAVE PURCHASE at todays rates is £2,500 (single grave 7ft 6in by 3ft, single depth). On top of that, the INTERMENT FEES £800, Grave Maintenance charges £500, permits, caskets, administration fees £1000 amount to £5000 or Rs. 425000 has to be incurred at the start. Then the annual charges follow. Also, the purchase is timed for maximum 50 years after that the grave site is reused. So for me I may be resting for 50 years in a grave that may have had 2 or even 5 bodies before mine.

    So folks think rationally. We have here a unique religious custom and the Kemps Corner Doongerwadi site is a world heritage site. If we cant pay for its upkeep from our pockets, then let commercial forces pay for it. It is stupid to be rigid and live in the past. Like everything we Parsees should evolve and drag our community into the 21 rst century. We have lived in India for nearly 1500 years. To still call ourselves Iranians is ludicrous. How many of the Indian Parsees have ever visited Iran. I am 66 yrs old. I have visited, lived and worked in many countries. But I have not been to Iran.

    NOw, what is the alternative. Do our Parsee millionaires have the cash to set up a trust in perpetuity for the maintenance of Doongerwadi for the next 1500 years? I dont think so. The 70000 to 100000 Parsees of India cant really afford such luxuries.

    I say Good Luck to the trustees of the Mumbai Parsi Panchayat for taking this first brave step to liberalisation and commercialisation. I would be very happy to die knowing that our funeral customs are safe, even temporarily, for future generations to practice.

  • Minoo

    You make a very valid point. Sentiments will always say one thing, and reality sadly the other.

    There are some issues where it is worth the fight. However this one is not it.

    As an aside, I personally hate hoardings. I think they deface the city, but thats my view irespective of the fact that I am a Parsi and Doongerwadi hoardings is an issue close to the heart.

  • Dr. Minoo C Dumasia

    Dear Mr Wadia

    I agree with you totally. We are already bombarded with advertising! Besides being aesthetically disheartening, hoarding ads are large and obtrusive; also a road hazard. They take up too much space, are too ugly, obtrusive and overwhelm the sidewalk streetscape. I have been to many world-class cities and have seen many such ugly things. I can’t find the words to describe these things. I personally feel they are obstructive & intrusive to our urban landscape.

    However, in this particular case, I do not believe position or aesthetics to be an issue. They are in a convenient location. If firms are willing to pay reasonable money to display their wares and it generates income to defray the costs of upkeep of the dokhmas and the whole Doongerwadi site, then I see no harm. It is a simple issue of mutual exploitation for the greater good of our community.

  • Shahnaz Irani

    I am shocked that the Parsi Panchayat has allowed such a frivolous piece of advertising to go up beside our hereditary resting place. My senior relatives have labeled the hoardings as ‘hideous’, don’t believe that the Panchayat needs more money and can’t believe that they have forced this upon the community. They are planning to organize a recall of members of the Panchayat.