After Life &
Page 2. Body & Spirit. Traditional Ceremonies / Geh Sarnu
Traditional Ceremonies / Geh Sarnu
Zoroastrian funeral ceremonies, the geh sarnu, are defined by simplicity and cleanliness. Death is seen as a great equalizer. In the words of the Persian poet Saadi, death , "che bar takht murdan, che bar rui-i-khak", "whether one dies on a throne or on a floor made of earth," the Zoroastrian methods of laying a body to rest, is egalitarian. Rather than building monuments and mausoleums for the departed, their memory is expected to live on it the hearts and prayers of their families and subsequent generations.
When an individual's death is imminent, family members or close friends start to make preparations for the passing away and funeral service. As in other cultures, relatives and friends are summoned to be with the dying individual.
Removal to the Mortuary
When the person passes away, family members are summoned and the body is removed to a mortuary that consists of a bathing room and a hall where the washed body is placed and prayers conducted. The hall is large enough to hold the body and seating for all who wish to attend the funeral services.
Spiritual Unity - the Payvand Connection
Payvand means to unite, join, link and connect. For Zoroastrians, payvand is also a ritual connection symbolizing solidarity that results in a spiritual synergy. During a funeral ceremony, all principle steps or actions that have spiritual significance are performed by individuals working in pairs and connected in some fashion. The connection is established by holding hands, holding a kusti, a kerchief, a scarf (or any strip of cloth), or in some other way.
In the main hall, either the priests or a family member light a fire in a censer - a fire that is kept burning throughout the ceremonies. Incense (loban) is sprinkled on the fire from time to time.
Ritual Bath / Sachkar
At the earliest opportunity, the body of the deceased is thoroughly washed by an even number, say two, of family members or individuals who know the procedure. The washing is performed using gomez (taro, or white bull's urine) followed by well water. Some systems omit the water wash. The gomez acts as an anti-bacterial disinfectant, and in the old days, its use in cleansing helped prevent the spread of infectious diseases. When gomez was not available, ash was used instead.
Wrapping the Kusti
After washing the body, family members dress the body in the recently washed old white cotton clothes including the sudrah and a prayer cap is placed on its head. Then while reciting the kusti prayers, the nearest relative, wraps a kusti, the girdle worn by Zoroastrians after initiation, around the body. If possible, the wrapping of the kusti is done by the eldest son or daughter of the father or mother respectively.
Whispering Prayers in the Deceased's Ears. Final Respects
After the body is placed on the sheet, two family members will seat themselves close to the body and one of them will whisper the ashem vohu and yatha ahu variyo prayers close to a ear of the deceased. They will then begin to continuously recite the ashem vohu prayer. Other family members and friends present will be invited to approach the body and pay their last respects.
Demeanour of the Bereaved
In saying their goodbyes and paying their respects to the deceased, Zoroastrians believe that displaying excessive grief at their loss makes it difficult for the soul to leave this world and move on to the next.
Handing Over to the Nasa-Salars or Pall Bearers
Next, the body of the deceased is handed over to the care of nasa-salars, the pall-bearers, who will have prepared themselves for their duties by undergoing a ritual bath, performing the kusti prayers, and donning a new set of clean white clothes. They also wear white gloves, the dastana and a padan, a veil-like covering over their faces - in a manner similar to doctors.
Nasa-Salars Mark the Protected Space or Kasha
After covering the body with its shroud, the nasa-salars scrape, draw with sand or place a sting to mark the outline of the kash / kasha or protected space around the body. Only the nasa-salars can enter the protected space. This line is placed three paces away from the body, a distance designed in the old days to prevent infection.
Prayers for the Departed
The prayers for the deceased - primarily the yasna that includes the gathas - are recited by two priests. During the recital of the yasna's ahunavaiti gatha, the priests stand on the outer circle - three paces away from the body - in payvand connection. Their connection is accomplished by a white strip of cloth between them.
Confirmation of Death / Sagdid
Halfway through the recital of Yasna 31.4, a special dog 'four-eyed' (chatur-chasma) dog - a dog with two eye-like spots above its eyes - is brought before the body to confirm death in a ritual called sagdid (dog-sight). If the dog stares steadily at the body, then the person is still alive. If the dog does not look at the body, the passing away of the person is confirmed.
Placing the Body on the Bier / Gehan
At the conclusion of the prayers, if the body is to be placed in a tower of silence, the nasa-salars enter the mortuary's hall carrying an iron bier (stretcher), or gehan. They place one of the white cotton bed sheets supplied by the family of the bier, lift the body using the shroud, and place the body on the bier. After the body has been placed on the bier, they tie a string to one of the bier handles and wrap the string around the bier seven times repeating a yatha-ahu-variyo prayer with each wrap of the string. The ritual provides the body with continued spiritual protecting against demonic forces during its journey to the tower.
Funeral Procession in Payvand Connection
An even number (two, four, or six depending on the weight of the deceased) of nasa-salars carry the body to the tower. A short distance behind, they are followed by a procession of family and friends walking in pairs led by the two officiating priests. The procession participants walk in payvand connection by holding hands or by holding two ends of a handkerchief, scarf or some other available piece of cloth or string.
At the tower, the procession reform and walk up to a stone (marble) slab placed on a raised platform a short distance from the outer walls of the tower. The body is placed on a marble platform to enable a final sagdid - a confirmation of death by a special dog.
Placing the Body in the Tower
After a re-confirmation of death by the dog, procession remains behind while the pall bearers, the khandhias or nasa-salars, take the body to the tower of silence They do so by ascending a set of steps on the east wall of the tower, steps that lead up to a solid iron door, the only entrance to the tower.
Beholding by the Sun / Khursheed Nigerishn
The body is placed in the tower before sunset to allow the body to be bathed by the light of the sun, a process called khursheed nigerishn or beholding by the sun.
Disposal of the Deceased's Clothes & Shroud
The shroud and clothes that had covered the body cannot be used for any purpose and must be disposed. The cloth and clothes are disposed in an impervious pit outside the tower where they disintegrate aided by lime or acid. When the pall bearers exit the tower, they throw the shroud and clothes into the pit.
While the pall bearers place and prepare the body inside the tower, the family and friends who have accompanied the body to the tower, retire to a nearby prayer hall called a sagri and say their farewell prayers for the soul of the deceased. Inside this hall is a fire or an oil lamp that is kept burning continuously. A window in the hall provides a view of the tower. When they see the pall bearers exit the tower and dispose of the deceased's clothing, the family and friends return to their homes.
Prayers for the first Four Days
Special prayers are said for the soul of the departed during the next three days culminating at 3:30 am on the fourth day, the time when the soul makes it journey across the chinvat bridge. The prayers are designed to aid the soul on its journey.