"An Ecological and Environmental Friendly method of Disposal of the Dead".
An ecological method of disposal which does not involve the use of fire, does not pollute air, water or the soil, and can be easily adopted to our religious ways and practices.
Aspi Maneckjee Poonawala.
The Zarathushti method of disposal of the dead is called DAHKMA-NASHINI, and go back to pre-historic times to the ancient religion of the Aryans known as Mazda-Yasna. Previous to that, the Aryans left the corpse on the mountain tops.
In an article "A guide to funeral ceremonies and prayers." by K. H. Antia (FEZANA Journal-Winter 2005, Zemestan 1374 YZ, Vol.18, No.4. pages 53-57) discusses the rituals and prayers as practiced by the Zarathushtis in India today. In the same issue (page 80), Er. Jal Birdy writes "When the soul separates from the body at the time of death, it is like a newborn infant, alone, fragile and vulnerable. It remains in this delicate state near the body for 3 days and 3 nights. On the dawn of the fourth day (Chahrum), the soul begins its journey toward the spiritual world".
Consequences of the Disappearance of the Vulture Population
Prior to 1990, there used to be 10 million vultures in the Indian subcontinent; since then, 95% of vulture population has been exterminated because of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called "Diclofenac" used for the veterinary treatment of cows and goats. A post-mortem examination of vultures who ate the remains of the drug-treated animals showed extensive damage by uric acid crystals, to their kidneys, liver and spleen a condition called visceral gout. In Dongarwadi at Mumbai, and other Dohkmas, the vultures have also disappeared, and due to increased urbanization the 5% of the remaining vultures have not returned to these Dohkmas.
Bombay Parsi Panchyat (BPP),has taken various steps to compensate for the lack of vultures, which include use of solar concentrators to dehydrate the corpse, use of herbal scented powders containing microorganisms and lime to increase the rate of decomposition of the corpse. However during the monsoon season these measures do not work due to lack of sunshine, and the rain washes out the added powders and lime. Foul smell of the decomposing corpses, has caused a major problem for the occupants of the recently built high-rise apartment buildings nearby the Dahkma in Mumbai.
A Parsi woman from Mumbai Ms. Dhan Baria recently went public, and distributed a CD containing pictures, and a 15 minute video of decomposing bodies in the Dohkma. This has hurt the sentiments of many Parsis in Mumbai, and BPP trustees have been blamed for not managing the Dohkmas properly. I myself have sympathies for the trustees, as they are doing their best under the circumstances. It is easy to criticize them than to do something to resolve the problem. Various alternate suggestions have been made to the BPP Trustees, which included cremation and burial. However, these methods of disposal are not accepted in our religion, as they pollute the fire, air, and soil of Mother Earth. Herewith, I am presenting an ecological method of disposal which does not involve the use of fire, does not pollute air, water or the soil, and can be easily adopted to our religious ways and practices.
Promessa, an alternate method of freeze drying the body
In DISCOVER Vol. 27 No. 09 September 2006, it was mentioned that a Swedish company, "Promessa", will freeze dry the body in liquid nitrogen, pulverize it with a slight mechanical vibration, and seal the resulting powder in a cornstarch coffin. They claim this "ecological burial" will decompose in 6 to 12 months.
DAHKMA-NASHINI utilizes solar energy to dehydrate the body, and this new method uses freeze drying to dehydrate the body. The technology will be available next year, (2007). The process is completely automated, no human touch is required for the corpse once it is placed in the chamber. The equipment is named "Promator" and can separately process 4 or 8 bodies per day, and the larger plant costs around 1 million Euros. The company can also lease “Promator”, so the initial investment can be minimized.
The web-site (www.promessa.se/ index_en.asp), gives all the information with illustrations on the process. Briefly, the corpse is first chilled to - 18 deg C., then is placed in a chamber and cooled with liquid nitrogen (-196 deg. C.). The body then becomes very firm and brittle, and a 5 mm mechanical vibration at certain defined frequency prepares the remains for freeze drying. The cellular water in the solid phase (ice) evaporates to water vapor under vacuum. What is left is approximately 30% of the total weight of the corpse as dust (as ~70% of the body mass is water, which is removed by freeze drying). Mercury (from dental amalgams), and all other metals (from "spare parts") are then removed from the dust, using well known techniques. The remaining dust is then placed in a coffin made of corn starch/potato starch, which when placed in the top soil, decomposes within 6 to 12 months and becomes fertile soil. A tree or a shrub can be planted on the grave, which will use the nutrients from the compost and grow as a symbol or memorial. The "Promessa concept" is presently marketed in Sweden, UK, NL, Germany, South Africa, Korea and soon in both USA and Canada (Canadian representative in Vancouver is E. Lees Associates).
Adaptation of Promessa to Dahkma-Nashini
I suggest the following modification which can be incorporated into our Zarathushti Dahkma-Nashini system in Mumbai. After the prayers the body can be placed into the Dohkma for up to 3 days for the protection of the soul, then removed and processed in "Promator" according to the above described method. The dust can then be placed back into the central well of the DOHKMA.
I may have hurt the sentiments of many traditional minded Parsis throughout the world by writing this article, as they might think that I am helping out the people who are concerned about the dignity after death. This is not true. The traditional Parsis consider DAHKMA-NASHINI as one of the pillars of our religion, and the traditionalist insist that the practice should be continued, despite the fact the bodies are piled up as depicted in Ms. Baria’s photographs and the 15 minute video. Traditionalists are asserting that the photographs and video are fake. In my own opinion traditional Parsis are not willing to face the reality, and instead of working with the BPP elected Trustees to resolve the issue they are hindering the process of improving the practice of Dahkma-nashini.
I leave with you a question. Why have Zarathushtis (not all), stopped living by the most important pillar of our religion-- the tenet of Asha or righteousness, as presented in our Ashem Vohu prayer. The highest value known to these New Age Zarathushtis, is the self, and the service of self at the cost of the suffering of others has become the ultimate modulus of successful life to them. Our ancestors have left us a legacy of righteousness, which should be continued, and is most important for the survival of our small community. I strongly suggest that different sectors of our community work together with honesty and integrity to resolve the issue of DAHKMA-NASHINI, as working together works. Amen.
Dr. Aspi Maneckjee Poonawalla is retired tpxicologist, who lives a simple life with Asha or righteousness in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. He lives alone and does reading, writing, organic gardening, Parsi cooking, and keeps fit and healthy by exercising. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org