Excarnation. Defleshing. Exposing the body to the elements and/or carrion birds for the purpose of reducing one who has passed to an oft-mangled skeleton. To most, the practice of doing anything with a corpse but treating, then burying or cremating the remains seems less than civil. For others, millennia of tradition mandate nothing less.
The Tower of Silence
Putrefaction, or the breaking down of a corpse, was viewed as a major point of vulnerability for the freshly dead among Iranian expatriates in Asia Minor dating back to the early 9th century. It was said that Avestan, the corpse demon, found immediate refuge in dead bodies, using them as vessels to contaminate the living and certain elements — specifically fire and earth. In order to avoid spreading uncleanliness, the corpse was placed atop a tower that was mostly flat, but for a raised perimeter. Upon the top of the tower, three rings — the outermost for men, the middle for women, and the innermost for children. It could take up to a year for the sun to bleach the bones, but once the process was complete, the remains were swept into a pit in the center of the tower. From there, rainwater would wash them out to sea.
In modern times, the Iranian Zoroastrians have abandoned the practice in favor of burial or cremation. Among the many
influential factors for the decision, some opportunistic people were stealing bodies for medical science since dissection for research was considered mutilation of a corpse.
As far as the towers of silence built in India, the steep decline of birds of prey that once picked the bodies to nothing but bones made the decision for Parsi Zoroastrians for them. In the late 1900s to the early 20th century, the use of the pesticide Diclofenac for livestock purposes poisoned the subcontinent’s population of vultures — their numbers shrank by 99.9% as of 2008. What few birds survived cannot consume an entire body, so Parsi Zoroastrians are researching ways to use solar panels to expedite the decomposition of bodies, while also attempting to breed the vultures in captivity.
Mostly in Tibet, but also found in places in Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, and parts of India, is a practice known poetically as a “sky burial.” Given its practical similarities to the tower of silence method, it’s a gentle name for a mostly ungentle series of physical events. Since most Tibetans believe in Vajrayana Buddhism, the body has no need for preservation after death; the soul is in a transitional state of rebirth.
Thus, the body is given back to the earth in the most altruistic way possible — by letting carrion birds eat the flesh. It’s rather convenient as well, as the ground in the craggy mountain region of Tibet is far too firm to dig graves into, and the lack of easily accessed wood makes pyres prohibitively expensive. Vultures tear into the flesh and consume every bit that can be had, then the bones are collected, pounded into dust with mallets, and given to smaller birds with propensities for human remains.
Though there’s nothing truly parallel in the United States, certain forums on the internet provide ideal places for Americans to conduct a sky burial of their own. That, you can Google for yourself.