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Rituals of Death in Iran
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

Rituals of Death

Life after death has been a major theme in all the religions and the passage from this life into the other has been dealt with in a variety of ways, depending on the particular belief system. The major religions of Iran can be divided into three distinct periods.

The first period was the pre-Zoroastrian or proto-Indo-Iranian, then Zoroastrian and finally the Islamic. Around the third millennium BC, proto-Indo-Iranians had become identifiable by speech as two distinct peoples, the Indians and the Iranians.

Rituals of Death

HeadingLife after Death, Pre-Zoroastrian or Proto-Indo-Iranian Period

The Iranian groups arrived in the area as of the 2nd millennium BC. Once in Iran, t he Iranians loaded with their Indo-Iranian traditions were influenced by the powerful civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamia. Elements of Sumerian, Babylonian and Elamite belief systems were incorporated into the Iranians ideas of cosmos and life after death. Influenced as such, they believed there was no end for the world or for humans, which were thought to follow one another ceaselessly. The world after was a continuation of the earthly life with no notions of heaven, hell, reward or punishment. After death the disembodied spirit, the ‘urvan’ (ravan in modern Persian), lingered on earth for three days before departing downward to a subterranean kingdom of the dead. This place was ruled over by Yima (Sanskrit Yama, Persian Jam/Jamshid in Shahnameh) who had been the first king to rule on earth and the first man to die.

Rituals of Death

In this kingdom spirits lived a shadowy existence, and were dependent on their descendants on earth for survival. Offerings were made to feed and cloth them through rituals at specified times. Most were made during the first year, when the newly departed urvan was assumed to be lonely, and not yet fully accepted into the world of the dead. The dead person’s heir (usually the eldest son) made offerings, for up to thirty years, the span of a generation. The first three days right after death were the most important of all. The soul was very susceptible to evil spirits at this time and needed strength and support to make it to the underworld. The soul would have to cross a dark river in a ferry to arrive in the kingdom of dead (Gilgamesh’s boat ride to reach immortality). This ‘Crossing of the Separator’ is called ‘Chinvato Peretu’ in the Avestan texts of the later periods.

Rituals of Death

To help the departed soul, the family prayed, fasted and made a blood sacrifice during the first three days. There were ritual offerings to fire and on the third night deceased’s cloths were blessed so that the dead person could start the journey fed and clothed. Food offerings were consecrated for thirty days and then once every thirtieth day, until the end of the first year. All together there would be three blood sacrifices during the first year, with annual offerings for the next thirty years. It was believed that after the first year the soul was fully incorporated in the underworld. To sustain the souls of all departed relatives, general offerings were made once a year at the feast of All Souls. In Avesta this is called Hamaspathmaedaya. This feast was celebrated on the last night of the year. They believed the souls would visit their old homes at night and depart at sunset on New Year’s Day.

Rituals of Death

Funeral rites involved the burial of the dead. Prominent members of the family were buried at the bottom of deep shafts covered by earthen barrows. Ordinary people were laid in simple graves in the earth. The Zoroastrian word ‘dakhma’ comes from this period and means ‘grave’.

Sometime toward the end of the third millennium BC, new ideas were incorporated into the belief system. There was hope that at least some people like the warriors, princes or the priests who had served the gods faithfully might escape this eternally joyless existence. If they behaved well, recited their prayers, sacrifices and performed the expected rituals, their souls could join the gods. They would end up in a sunlit Paradise, where all imaginable delights are possible. "Crossing of the Separator’ becomes a bridge (Chinvat Bridge in Avesta, Sarat Bridge in the Quran) with one end resting on the mountain peak of Hara, the other on the road to heaven. Only people worthy of paradise would cross, the rest would fall off and end in the subterranean kingdom of the dead.

With the hope of attaining paradise comes the idea of resurrection. After all, experiencing the joys of heaven in sprit only was not much of a reward! It was assumed that within the first year after death the bones of the dead would be raised up, clothed in immortal flesh and would be unified with the soul in heaven. The Indian funerary rite to cremation comes from this belief. The mortal flesh was destroyed quickly and the bones would be buried, ready for resurrection. The Iranians, regarding fire as a sacred entity, adopted the rite of exposure instead. The corpse was left in a barren place to be devoured by scavengers. The bones were collected afterwards and buried with offerings and rituals.


HeadingLife after Death in Iran, the Zoroastrian Period

With the coming of Zoroaster teachings in the middle of the second millennium BC major changes are introduced. The Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) creates humans to help other divinities to gradually overcome evil and restore the world to its original perfect state. Therefore, the departed soul will be judged on what it has done to aid the cause of goodness. Attaining paradise becomes possible for all. Women as well as men, priests, warriors, servants and masters could all go to heaven. Chinvat Bridge became a place for moral judgment. People are judged not only on the basis of their offerings, prayers and sacrifices, but also on their ethical achievements.

Mithra, a major ancient Iranian deity, is assimilated into the new beliefs and presides over the tribunal; accompanied by Sraosha (Soroush) and Rashnu (eyzad of Justice), who holds the scales of justice. In the Indian Vedic literature (which has similarities to the Zoroastrian cosmology) the spirits are brought in by two dogs (messengers of Yama / Jam in Persian). In Avesta the two dogs await the spirits at the Chinvat Bridge. Once judged, if the scales are heavier on the good side the soul is directed by a beautiful maiden, the personification of its own conscience (‘daena’) to the paradise. If the scales sink on the bad side, the bridge becomes narrow, sharp and a horrid hag grabs the soul and plunges with it down to hell. The concepts of Hell—a place of torment presided over by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman, Shaytan in Koran)—, Heaven, Resurrection and individual judgment were introduced for the first time by the Zoroastrians. These doctrines deeply influenced the later religious developments in the area, i.e. Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

The funerary rites were more or less the same as before. Flesh was left exposed for a while. Bones were buried to wait for judgment day. The old belief survived that the soul lingered on earth for three days after death. Since each person’s deeds were responsible for his acceptance or denial into the heaven, the number of rites and observances performed on behalf of the dead by family members was reduced.

Traditional Zoroastrians today still follow many of the same rites. Unless the death occurs late in the day or at night, the funeral follows in a few hours. At the funeral all dress in white. The shrouded corpse is never touched and simple ablution after the funeral will purify all participants who touch the bier. The white cloths are washed after each funeral. Specific hymns are recited and Avestan prayers are said to pay homage to Soroush. The rite of exposure was performed until recently, but on the whole it has been abandoned.

The traditional funerals were carried with a number of rituals and ended in dakhma. These processions were normally in complete silence. This was to avoid breaking the power of prayers read to Soroush. Once entering the dakhma the rest of the prayers was and is recited in Avestan. The language is assumed to ward off evil spirits. Candles or oil lamps will be lit for three days next to the dead body. Special foods were prepared and no meat was consumed during the first three days. On the third day more rituals were performed, prayers were said, a special cloth (Sedra) was blessed to provide a spirit garment for the departed soul. Many of these rituals are still performed by the Zoroastrians today.

Other minor rituals are also performed during the first thirty days. The next major ones are on the thirtieth of the month, ‘see-roza’ and one-year after, ‘sal’. In between the two ‘rawza’, recitals of the Farvardin Yasht, the Hymn to ‘All Souls’ is performed on a regular basis. Crying and other extreme expressions of sorrow are not normally practiced by the Zoroastrians. They believe such behavior (mooye in Persian, amyava in Avesta) belongs to the world of Ahriman and should be avoided.


HeadingLife After Death in Iran, the Islamic Period

The Muslim conquest of Iran introduced many changes. Quranic concepts of life after death go back to Jewish, and so indirectly, to the Persian and ancient Babylonian sources. The world after is a place for judgment, reward or severe punishment. After death, the departed soul will remain in Barzakh (inferno) until Rastakhiz (resurrection). The hour of judgment comes at the end of the world with a mighty blow and blast of trumpets or an angel’s summons.

The earth trembles, mountains quiver, the sea overflows its shores; the sun turns on its axis, the moon darkens and splits in two. The stars fall to earth and the other world is revealed before the eyes of mankind. All humans are resurrected; the Divine Book is opened in which all human deeds are recorded. Two spirits called Nakeer and Monker conduct the judgment. Every human receives a list of his/her deeds to read aloud. If the book is placed in the right hand he/she is destined for heaven; if is placed in the left hand, they are doomed to hell. The crossing of the Sarat Bridge will decide their final fate. Blessed ones will cross and end in heaven; for the doomed, the bridge becomes sharply narrow and they drop into hell.

Allah is the ultimate source of power. A Muslim’s first duty is to submit to God’s will, follow the rules, codes of conduct, and perform the prescribed rituals. For this reason purely ceremonial prescriptions, such as ablutions before prayer, are put on exactly the same level as commandments of an elevated moral value, such as that of honesty. Missing prayers (namaz), avoiding ‘Roozeh’ (fasting) or drinking wine are regarded as sin. Not adhering to Allah’s commands in itself is an act of sin.

Ablutions and rituals, such as prayer (namaz), fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca and paying the religious tax, are the primary canonical duty of believers. As a result, many of the rites performed at the time of death are to compensate any shortcomings related to the above acts by the deceased while alive. The relatives ask for Allah’s forgiveness of the deceased by reciting prayer of the dead (namaz e meyet). Mullahs are paid to perform all prayers that the deceased might have missed and fast for them as well. All religious taxes owed will have to be paid off to ensure smooth transition to the next world.

The death rituals are based on Islamic prescriptions for the Muslims, while other religious minorities follow their own traditions. Friends and relatives gather around the dying person if they have the chance to do so. There will be prayers and crying mostly by women. Until recently, once it became obvious that a person was dying, the relatives would dye the person’s hands and feet with henna. It is believed that Prophet Muhammad used henna himself and if the newly dead is decorated with henna, the two judges will be easy on the dead recognizing that the deceased is a Shiite Muslim and related to the Prophet. People claiming descent from the Prophet call themselves Seyyed and believe they are favoured in both worlds. The dying person is normally placed in a comfortable position facing Mecca. A few drops of a spiritually blessed water ab e torbat are put in the mouth to bless the dying person. The water is supposed to be imported from Kerbalah (from the land Imam Husayn is buried). Verses from the Quran are recited and the dying person, if conscious, is encouraged to recite and ask Allah for forgiveness.


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