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An Unusual Funeral

When it comes to funerals, there is only one rule: there are no rules. What would be considered disrespectful in one culture is standard practice in another. In Hinduism, cremation is the usual way to say farewell to a dead person. In Islam and Judaism, it’s burial in the ground. In Christianity, both are acceptable. But what about Zoroastrianism? This is a religion that not many people have heard of, although it was an important influence on all the four religions mentioned above. It was founded by the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) about two-and-a-half thousand years ago in the region known today as Iran. Today most of its followers live in the two Indian cities of Bombay and Karachi, where they are more usually known as Parsis. They are famous for their skill at business and their philanthropy, but they have a very unusual way of conducting a funeral. When Parsis die, their bodies are placed beneath the open sky at the top of a so-called “Tower of Silence”. Wait a minute, you might think: doesn’t India have vultures and other scavenging birds that eat dead bodies? Yes, it does, but that’s precisely the point. Parsis want their dead to be eaten by vultures, so that only the bones left behind. In their religion, fire and earth are sacred elements, but corpses are unclean. They think that cremation would contaminate fire and burial would contaminate the earth. If a corpse is eaten by vultures, that contamination won’t occur. After the vultures have departed, the bones are placed inside the tower and allowed to crumble away. In most other cultures this would seem a shocking and disrespectful way to treat a dead body, but the important things are the life-time wishes of the dead person and the intent of the people conducting the funeral. To Parsis, cremation or burial would be the disrespectful thing to do. Exposure to vultures, on the other, is in perfect accordance with their religion and with the wishes of the departed. So there is a rule for funerals after all: we should do what the departed person wanted during life, as far as possible. What we want and what we can afford are often two different things, for example, particularly when times are hard and money is short. The costs of a funeral are rising all the time, but there is a way to keep them down and ensure you are able to have the kind of funeral you want. A funeral plan is a way of fixing a price now and ensuring you won’t face extra charges in the future, no matter when the funeral takes place. A funeral plan doesn’t just control costs: it offers choices too. Whether it’s burial or cremation, a traditional service or something secular, you can choose the kind of funeral you want in good time. Then you’ll enjoy peace of mind, knowing that costs are taken care of and all your wishes will be met when the time comes. This is something that people in all cultures can understand, whether they’re Christians, Muslims, Jews or Parsis. An important part of happiness is the feeling that we have some control over our lives – and over the end of our lives too. Funeral plans offer that control. You won’t find funeral directors in Britain offering a “Vulture Option”, but everything else can be discussed and put into a funeral plan.