Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Should Parsis promote funeral alternatives?

The discovery of a desiccated human body part in the garden of a fire temple on Napean Sea Road last week caused a lot of distress and deliberation among the city’s Parsi-Zoroastrians.

By Manoj Nair |DNA India

The Malabar Hill police suspect that the body part must have been picked up by a scavenger bird from the nearby Towers of Silence cemetery. But the incident has revived an old debate on whether the community should also promote alternate methods of funerals for their dead.

For centuries, the Parsi-Zoroastrians of Mumbai have left bodies of their dead at the hill-top cemetery for disposal by vultures and the sun. The near extinction of large scavenger birds, largely blamed on the use of certain painkilling drugs on cattle, has resulted in a crisis at the cemetery. To augment this ancient funeral method brought by their ancestors from Persia, community trusts have set up sun-powered devices at the cemetery to dispose of the bodies. But some feel the solar desiccators are not the answer.

Police have sent the body part to a forensic laboratory for testing and while the final report will have some information on its origin, supporters of the old funeral tradition say it is working well and has the acceptance from the overwhelming majority in the community. But groups campaigning for alternate funeral practices have quickly used the incident to promote their cause.

They say that though 10% to 12% of funerals in the community are already done in a non-traditional way, orthodox groups have refused community facilities and services for families of those who have opted for such rites.

More than a decade ago, a group called Disposal of the Dead with Dignity Action Group was formed by eminent members of the community to promote cremations and burials. The DDD is now defunct but there are other groups, like the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism, which continue to campaign for alternate funerals.

On an average, two or three bodies are left at the towers every day, but in the absence of vultures and other large scavenging birds, the old system’s effectiveness has been put to test.

“The issue is not whether a bird has picked up a body part from the cemetery. The question we have raised is: why has this taken place? This has happened because the traditional system has collapsed without vultures. We need to look at cremations as an alternative,” said Vispy Wadia of ARZ.

Khojeste Mistree, trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, which manages the Towers of Silence, said though the cemetery has existed for over 300 years, this is the first time such an incident has been reported.

“Suddenly, this is found,” said Mistree. “It could have come from anywhere; there are two crematoriums in the vicinity. This is a sensitive issue; people are trying to restart a controversy. The system is working well and there has been no controversy for the last two-three years. Why resurrect it?”