Using Animals as Part of a Burial Custom

The burial customs of the hominids that predated the Neanderthal man included leaving the dead above ground. This method is often confused with the term ‘exposure,’ which actually means the deliberate practice of displaying the deceased in such a way that it could be devoured by carnivorous animals. Often times, the body was situated on a platform of some sort, but the main idea was to allow animals to do ‘their dirty work.’

Dead bodies were viewed as extremely unclean. Ancient cultures feared that burying the dead under the ground or even setting them afire would contaminate their ‘pure elements’ , air, water, fire and earth. It was only a matter of time before they put the creatures they saw as equally unclean (scavenger animals) to good use and solve their problem of disposing dead bodies. After choosing a site most populated by the animals that would ‘clean’ their corpses, the body was left.

This method of burial was most popular amongst the Zoroastrians, who followed an Iranian religious reformer from the 6th century BC named Zoroaster. This ancient pre-Islamic religion still has a few followers in isolated locales in Iran, but has become a widely practiced belief system in India , known as Parsiism. Their animal of choice for this method of burial was the vulture. They specially called upon the help of buzzards because they had a reputation for exclusively feasting upon carrion and had a knack for picking bones clean in an extremely efficient fashion. Zoroastrians would expose the naked body of the corpse on elevated platforms that they built at what they thought was a safe distance from where they lived.

After a death has occurred, the Zoroastrians situated a ‘four-eyed’ dog to watch over the corpse and make sure no evil spirits possessed the body. They would paint a black dot above each eye and the canine was believed to possess a magical stare. On the third day, the corpse was taken to what was called the ‘Tower of Silence’ , one of three circular elevated platforms with designated sections for men, women, and children. They didn’t have to do anything extra to call upon the help of the vultures as over time, they became accustomed to receiving regular feedings at the platforms. The creatures hovered over the towers and waited for their next meal. They then stripped the flesh off of the bones. This process took between one to two hours. The sun would then dry the skeleton and the bones were later swept into a pit.

The Zoroastrians of Iran and Parsis of India embraced the practice of exposure as part of their religion, but in Tibet, the dead did not receive any ceremonious send-offs. They were simply left behind on a mountainside to serve as food for whatever carnivore happened upon the remains. Sects in Tibet believed that a body without a soul was insignificant and that consumption by an animal served as a simple, inexpensive way of getting rid of unwanted remains.