Dealing with Death and Tradition

A funeral service at a Parsi prayer hall in Mumbai
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After millennia of the community’s existence, Parsis are going in for cremations in significant numbers for the first time

IT IS COMMON knowledge that the population of Parsis is rapidly dwindling. On 25 July, The Times of India had a news report detailing how the recently released figures of the 2011 Census showed that the country’s count of Parsis had come down to 57,254, a decline of 18 per cent from the 2001 Census. Even as their numbers go down decade after decade, another transformative phenomenon is making itself apparent: the manner in which they dispose of their dead. After millennia of the community’s existence, Parsis are going in for cremations in significant numbers for the first time.

Last month, Mumbai saw a debate within the community on the issue. The trigger for it was the death of Kaikobad Rustomfram, a 90-year old Zoroastrian whose wish was to be cremated once he passed away. His daughter decided to honour it. Earlier in January, Rustomfram’s wife Khorshed too was cremated. She was 82. With Rustomfram’s cremation, the number of Parsis who had opted for this method of addressing mortal remains stood at 80 over a span of eight months.

Traditionally, Parsis would give up their bodies at Doongerwadi or the Towers of Silence for vultures to feed on. The bones are later placed in a well with chemicals to hasten decomposition. But due to the disappearance of vultures from Mumbai, the remains are no longer devoured completely and tend to lie in a partially decomposed state for days, yielding a stench.

Once a corpse is taken for traditional last prayers into the Towers of Silence, no family member is allowed inside. In contrast, a cremation lets the family stay with the body until the very end while the body is consigned to flames. The access that families get to the place where this is done is cited by some community members as a consideration in the choice they make. There is also another major reason for the change. A number of Parsis now marry outside the community and are consequently ostracised. Their bodies cannot be laid out at the Towers of Silence, so they have to be either buried or cremated.

Orthodox Parsis believe that cremation pollutes the environment and the fumes from a burning body are toxic. A cremation, they contend, amounts to desecrating fire, which is held as holy. Burials, they say, pollute the earth. Vultures, they say, eat the flesh within an hour and the bones are dried in the sun before being put into the well; this is seen as purifying the dead while honouring the sanctity of fire as well as elements like air and water.

The population of vultures started to decline in India due to the indiscriminate use of Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used for cattle. Carcasses consumed by the birds led to their being poisoned in vast numbers. Though the drug has been banned in India, the vulture population is yet to revive.

Dinshaw Tamboly, a former trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, has been a leading advocate of cremation. According to him, in the absence of vultures, other smaller birds and scavengers like crows feed on the bodies. “They just peck. They do not have the devouring power of vultures. The bodies are dismembered and lie around for days,” says Tamboly. He also says that the pall bearers who take the bodies inside the Towers of Silence have repeatedly complained about the stench of decomposing corpses. “The bodies lie around for months,” says Tamboly.

Along with others, he took the lead in establishing a new prayer hall in Worli at a crematorium turned over by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Private donations saw the hall operational from September 2015. “Many Parsis are looking at cremation. It is picking up,” adds Tamboly.

The prayers and rituals conducted in the case of Parsi cremations are similar to those done at the Towers of Silence. The major difference is the granting of permission for the family, particularly those who are non-Parsis, to attend the funeral rites in the prayer hall.

“I have written out a will asking for a cremation for myself and my family members. We do not want to lie around all smelly and broken up. We want dignity after death too,” says Sohrab, a media executive. “I have gone through deep pain after I was told that the body of my father was still lying around at the Towers of Silence and that it had rotted. We are all for cremation.”

Many Parsis are apprehensive of expressing open support for cremation in fear of being socially boycotted by the elders of the community. They convey their wishes to their children and this is usually not disclosed until they pass away.

The debate over cremation is part of a struggle in the community between an orthodox faction that wants to keep ancient practices intact and modernists who feel that reform and adaptation are the only way ahead for Parsis. Going by the decline in their numbers, say the latter, time might be running out for them.