The impact of Covid 19 on society in general, and individuals and families in particular, is unprecedented. The world was taken by surprise in early 2020 and is still in a daze with the second and third wave getting more infectious and lethal. Indians across the country are grieving for the loss of their loved ones.
Where members of our miniscule community are concerned, not only are we mourning the loss of our loved ones to Covid-19, but also the devastating emotional impact of not being able to give a proper farewell to them. It’s heart-wrenching to know that a large number of Zoroastrians are struggling to address or come to terms with this dilemma, by looking for a religiously acceptable, alternative methods for the last rites of those who have lost their lives to this deadly virus, in a dignified manner, without causing harm to society. Many amongst us are desperately trying to find a solution to this problem which is likely to persist for a while.
It’s no exaggeration when I say that our community is on the threshold of an acute emergency and its members are crying out in despair. But it is apparent that their voices are too soft to be heard or heeded. A quiet but fervent plea is made to our community elders and leaders and to the ones who have the means to bring an end to the ongoing unpleasant manner of disposal of patients who have succumbed to COVID-19. There is palpable urgency to resolve this perplexing matter without compromising on our religious principles and sentiments but with a realistic and compassionate approach. Gut-wrenching scenes of corpses being burned are flooding the media – mainstream and social. Surat recently saw 5 Parsis succumbing to Covid within just one day! Cases in Mumbai and Pune are rising.
This is not the time for intellectual debate. This is time for action. Given a choice, what is worse – cremation or a dignified burial with rituals at our community Doongerwadi? Between burning and burying – which is a better option? What are Irani Zarathushtis doing in Iran since the sixties? They are burying. In Zoroastrian communities across India, where there are no Dokhmas, the practice of ground burial has been considered and accepted as the next option and the Anjumans in these localities have built Aramghahs (Resting Place) for the said purpose. In the UK, ZTFE is a very traditional Anjuman but they bury their dead. Even scions of the Tata family have been laid to rest over there.
I am not promoting an alternate system. I’m simply saying that when we have no other alternative, what would be more preferable and acceptable? We need to use our common sense, which unfortunately, is not very common among the very orthodox in our community.
In my humble opinion, an unused dokhma could be assigned for consigning the bodies of victims who succumb to COVID-19 by strictly adhering to health and safety guidelines issued by the authorities and by observing all measures required for the wellbeing of all involved, particularly those who handle the corpses. I honestly believe this proposal may not be accepted because it poses numerous complications. To obtain permission from multiple State and Municipal agencies will be very difficult, resulting in a considerable loss of valuable time.
The next, more practical option could perhaps be to demarcate a portion of the Doongerwadi property and allocate a piece of land ONLY for the purpose of burying the bodies of these unfortunate victims, whilst observing every given stringent guideline and procedure stated by the government and medical officials. This will provide solace and reassure the patient, before he/she passes away, and to the family, that at least the funeral prayer will be recited for him or her, if not a funeral ceremony in its entirety, while he or she is put to rest in the familiar peaceful and serene grounds of the Doongerwadi.
It is heart-breaking and devastating for the families of the deceased to not consign the bodies to the Dokhma. To add to this nightmare, witness a gruesomely undignified method, adopted to dispose the bodies of those that they so dearly loved. Last year, we thought the virus would soon be gone and would not affect too many of us but we have proved to be miserably wrong in our approach. The deadly virus is here and is here to stay for some time. Numbers that were once flashing on our television sets and mobile phone screens have now taken the shape of people whom we have known and grown to love.
I have discussed this proposition and taken the counsel of many knowledgeable and religiously inclined fellow Zoroastrians and Mobeds: all of them are against the prevalent system of cremating Parsis victims of COVID, for it is not in harmony with our religious precepts. It also brings a lot of pain and grief to the near ones and increases anxiety of the ailing just before dying.
I wish to declare that I staunchly uphold my belief in our time tested and eco- friendly system of Dokhmenashini and I believe no other method of disposing the dead is acceptable to me in normal circumstances. Please note I emphatically pronounce that if permission for burial is granted, it must come to a grinding stop, as soon as we see the end of this pandemic.
It would be a blessing, if regional Anjumans or Panchayats, who have Doongarwadi property under their auspices, agree to allocate a secluded piece of land for this purpose, marking this as a once in a lifetime concession, made during these unprecedented times, only on humanitarian grounds, because Desperate times call for Desperate measures!
As Christians and Muslims had sought and have been granted permission to bury the mortal remains of their brethren who have succumbed to COVID 19 – why can’t we follow suit? Time is never constant – we live in quickly changing times and it is wise to bring about constructive change in order to accommodate the demands of time rather than be rigid and allow time to surpass us, making way for self-destruction.
I urge the office bearers of all the Anjumans and Panchayats to bury the hatchet, to work in unison and address this larger and more demanding issue that is looming over our heads. Make it your religious responsibility and duty to ensure that these departed souls too receive their rightful share of respect and dignity. A respectful and dignified funeral will soothe and console the hearts and minds of the survivors during these dark moments of their lives.
According to ‘The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees Their origin and Explanation’ by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, “It appears from all the description, that the funeral ceremonies of the Parsis produce in the minds of the survivors a great solicitude for the health of the living, respect for the dead, feelings of gratitude and love towards the deceased, and ideas of morality and virtue inculcated by the thoughts that death levels everybody, and that one should always be prepared for death which may overtake him at any moment”.
This is a treasured piece of advice, by one of the most respected minds, which summarises my contention and plea to grant dignity to the dead.