Letter: Funerary mysteries

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The Independent Online
Sir: Tim McGirk's interesting report on the changing attitude of some Parsees to the tradition of exposing the dead to be devoured by birds ('Shortage of vultures threatens ancient culture', 16 September) repeats a popular misconception.

The tradition did not originate as a result of Muslim persecution, and the Muslim rulers of Iran did not force the Zoroastrians to leave their dead unburied. In fact, Zoroastrians received a certain measure of toleration from the Muslims (in exchange for the payment of a special tax) and were accepted on a par with Christians and Jews as 'protected peoples'.

The practice in Iranian religion of exposing the dead to be eaten by animals and birds is much older than Islam and is attested by Herodotus in the fifth century BC. It is likely that it is a survival of a funerary practice that goes back to prehistoric times.

The custom is sometimes explained as a result of an unwillingness to pollute the sacred elements of earth, fire and water by contact with the dead, but such explanations are usually secondary rationalisations of social and religious practices, the origins of which are unknown.

Whether the Parsees will one day abandon their ritual only time will tell. The feeling of some Parsees against it perhaps reflects the influence of modern urban living and a sense of security that no longer makes it necessary to emphasise practices which, in the past, have distinguished the Parsees from the surrounding society.

Yours faithfully,

GERALD HAWTING

Head of Department of Religious Studies

School of Oriental and African Studies

London, WC1

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