Activist’s Idea of Composting Bodies as an Alternative to Dokhmenashini

With vultures fighting for their survival, the Zoroastrian community finds itself at a crossroad.

A Parsi community activist has triggered a debate by suggesting an alternative method to dispose off the dead. Homi Dalal, 71, an Andheri resident, has written to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), suggesting that they should allow composting of bodies, instead of simply leaving them to decompose at the Tower of Silence.

Article by Jyoti Shelar | Mumbai Mirror

He said the bodies can be composted using wooden planks, dried leaves and compost powder, and that the method will also yield good manure. Traditionally, the Parsi-Zoroastrian community disposes off its dead by leaving them exposed in the Tower of Silence to be devoured by the vultures.

04-02This traditional method, however, has become a point of contention in the last decade as Mumbai’s vulture population has dropped drastically. Many cases off rotting corpses were also reported. The BPP installed solar panels to fasten the decomposition process but they remain mostly dysfunctional, especially during monsoon.

Dalal said, “The idea struck me after reading an article about the Urban Death Project by a Seattle based architect Katrina Spade, who is currently gathering funds to kick off the project.” He added that the BPP should take a step ahead to support the collapsing system of disposing the dead within the community.

“I suggest that one of the wells can be filled with wood chips, punk and sawdust. The bodies kept under solar panels for a week can be dropped in the well and again covered with a layer of wood, punk and sawdust. Within a few months, everything will turn into mulch, which can be used in Doongerwadi itself,” he wrote in his letter.

Dalal’s contention is based on a similar experiment he carried out on a dead stray cat a year ago. “I have done a part time course in horticulture in the Mumbai University, after which I had tried the method on a dead cat. After reading about the Urban Death Project, I am positive that the experiment will succeed,” said Dalal, who feels the method will benefit the environment as well.

BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta said he has no qualms in experimenting. “It is a religious issue, however, and only our high priest can take a call on whether it’s right or wrong,” he said.

The community’s high priest Khurshed Dastur said he will not opine on the matter till there is concrete evidence in front of him.

A few community members, however, are convinced that it will be against the religion to even consider such an option. “Firstly, we cannot use wood for disposal of the dead in our religion. One really has to sit and understand the theology before demanding such experiments,” said Zoroastrian scholar and BPP trustee Khojestee Mistry. He added, “Do these people know that vulture population has gone down but the population of crows and kites has risen 10-fold. Even they feed on bodies.” Vultures were on the verge of extinction due to a veterinary drug used widely in the sub-continent.

THE URBAN DEATH PROJECT

Katrina Spade, a Seattle-based architect recently started collecting funds for the Urban Death Project-a compost based renewal system. The concept involves placing bodies in midst of a three-storey core with high carbon material such as wood chips, straw and other organics matter. Within 2 months, a process of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity takes place and the bodies decompose fully, leaving behind rich compost.