The Efficacy of Funeral Ceremonies
Theosophist, June, 1883
Letter by N. D. K. addressed to A. P. Sinnett | Reply by H.P.B.
To the Writer of the “Occult Fragments.”
Dear Sir And Brother,
In your article on “Devachan” you have explained at length the enjoyment that the Spiritual Ego in combination with the higher essence of the fifth principle, feels in a sort of rosy sleep extending over an enormous period. The Ego that takes its birth in Devachan, after the period of gestation, is unconscious of what passes here on earth to which it cannot be attracted. It is only the shell formed of the fourth and the lower remnant of the fifth principle that remains wandering in Kama-Loka, and it is this reliquiæ that often makes its appearance under certain conditions in the Seance room of the Spiritualist. All this has been clearly taught in the “Fragments” which will help to dispel many a doubt. The information however that could be gathered from the “Fragments” does not explain how far the shell made up of the 4th and lower 5th is conscious of its past existence, and whether it consciously suffers for its past misdeeds in any shape. To the Hindus and Parsees again it is of the highest importance to know whether any obsequial ceremonies are of any the least benefit to this shell or to the Ego resting in Devachan. Enlightened reason rejects the idea that the blundering ceremonial acts performed mechanically could be of any avail to the disembodied portion of man, and yet the Parsees and the Hindus have to spend large sums of money from year to year to allay a superstitious dread lest they might unconsciously do injury to the departed soul. The funeral ceremonies are a real curse to the Parsee, and the middle classes are ground down by needless expenses which lie heavy upon them. Their civilization has been greatly retarded by this crushing superstition. It will therefore be no small boon to learn the opinion of the Occultists as to how far men on earth can if at all—benefit the four remaining principles of a deceased person. At page 179 of the 4th volume of the Theosophist Mr. Chidambaram Iyer quotes a Shastra which says that “he who omits to perform Sraddha on the anniversary of the day of death will be born a chandala a crore of times.”1 This is evidently the writing of an uninitiated priest2 who scarcely knew anything about the true doctrine of rebirths. But sentences like these sway the populace, and thoughtful persons for want of a correct knowledge of the occult teaching on this point are themselves troubled with doubts.
This subject very conveniently falls in with the subject of “Devachan” and the promised article on “Avitchi,” and I sincerely trust you will be good enough to enlarge upon this point as it is of the highest moment to the Asiatic races to know what their funeral ceremonies are really worth.
“N. D. K.,” F.T.S.
Editor’s Note:—The writer of the “Fragments” having gone to England, some time has to elapse of course before he can answer the questions. Until then as a student of the same school we may, perhaps, be permitted to say a few words upon the subject.
In every country, as among all the peoples of the world from the beginning of history, we see that some kind of burial is performed—but that very few among the so-called savage primitive races had or have any funeral rites or ceremonies. The well-meaning tenderness felt by us for the dead bodies of those whom we loved or respected, may have suggested, apart from the expression of natural grief, some additional marks of family respect for them who have left us forever. But rites and ceremonies as prescribed by our respective Churches and their theologians, are an afterthought of the priest, an outgrowth of theological and clerical ambition, seeking to impress upon the laity a superstition, a well-paying awe and dread of a punishment of which the priest himself knows nothing beyond mere speculative and often very illogical hypotheses. The Brahmin, the Mobed, the Augur, the Rabbi, the Moolah and the Priest, impressed with the fact that their physical welfare depended far more upon his parishioners, whether dead or alive, than the spiritual welfare of the latter on his alleged mediatorship between men and God, found the device expedient and good, and ever since worked on this line. Funeral rites have originated among the theocratically governed nations, such as the ancient Egyptians, Aryans, and Jews. Interwoven with, and consecrated by the ceremonies of theology, these rites have been adopted by the respective religions of nearly all the nations, and are preserved by them to this day; for while religions differ considerably among themselves, the rites often surviving the people as the religion to which they owed their origin have passed from one people to another. Thus, for instance, the threefold sprinkling with earth with which the Christian is consigned to the tomb, is handed down to the Westerners from the Pagan Greeks, and Romans; and modern Parseeism owes a considerable portion of its prescribed funeral rites, we believe, to the Hindus, much in their present mode of worship being due to the grafts of Hinduism. Abraham and other Patriarchs were buried without any rites, and even in Leviticus (19:28) the Israelites are forbidden to “make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks” upon themselves. In the same manner the oldest Zoroastrian books, the old and the new Desatir, with the exception of a few acts of charity (to the poor, not to the Mobeds) and the reading of sacred books, prescribe no special ceremonies. We find in the Book of the Prophet Abad (Desatir) simply the following:
“154. A corpse you may place in a vase of aqua-fortis, or consign it to the fire, or to the earth, (when cleansed of its Nasa or dead matter).”
“At the birth of a child or the death of a relative, read the Nosk, and give something in the road of Mazdam (for Ormuzd’s sake, or in charity).”
That’s all, and nowhere will one find in the oldest books the injunction of the ceremonies now in use, least of all that of spending large sums of money which often entails ruin upon the survivors.
Nor, from the occult standpoint, do such rites benefit in the least the departed soul. The correct comprehension of the law of Karma is entirely opposed to the idea. As no person’s karma can be either lightened or overburdened with the good or bad actions of the next of kin of the departed one, every man having his karma independent and distinct from that of his neighbour—no more can the departed soul be made responsible for the doings of those it left behind. As some make the credulous believe that the four principles may be made to suffer from colics, if the survivors ate immoderately of some fruit. Zoroastrianism and Hinduism have wise laws—far wiser than those of the Christians—for the disposal of their dead, but their superstitions are still very great. For while the idea that the presence of the dead brings pollution to the living is no better than a superstition, unworthy of the enlightened age we live in, the real cause of the religious prohibition to handle too closely the dead and to bury them without first subjecting the bodies to the disinfectant process of either fire, vultures or aqua-fortis (the latter the prevailing method of the Parsees in days of old) was as beneficent in its results as it was wise, since it was the best and most necessary sanitary precaution against epidemics. The Christians might do worse than borrow that law from the “Pagans,” since no further than a few years back, a whole province of Russia was nearly depopulated, in consequence of the crowded condition of its burial ground. Too numerous interments within a limited space and a comparatively short time saturate the earth with the products of decomposition to such a degree, as to make it incapable of further absorbing them, and the decomposition under such a condition being retarded its products escape directly into the atmosphere, bringing on epidemic diseases and plagues. “Let the dead bury their dead”—were wise words, though to this day no theologian seems to have understood their real and profound meaning. There were no funeral rites or ceremonies at the death of either Zoroaster, Moses, or Buddha, beyond the simple putting out of the way of the living the corpses of them who had gone before.
Though neither the Dabistan nor the Desatir can, strictly speaking, be included in the number of orthodox Parsee books—the contents of both of these if not the works themselves anteceding by several millenniums the ordinances in the Avesta as we have now good reasons to know—we yet find the first command repudiated but the second corroborated in the latter. In Fargard VIII, (Verse “74” 233 of the Vendidad,) Ahura Mazda’s command: “They shall kill the man that burns the corpse,” etc., is thus commented upon: “He who burns Nasa (dead matter) must be killed. . . . Burning Nasa from the dead is a capital crime,” [Fargard I, 17 (63)] for . . . “Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who created by his watch-craft a sin for which there is no atonement, the (immediate) burning of corpses.”3 Ahriman being man’s own ignorance and selfishness.
But as regards the rites observed after the funeral of the corpse, we find no more than this—a repetition of the injunction given in the Book of Abad (Desatir), “An Athravan . . . shall say aloud these fiend-smiting words:—Yathâ ahû vairyô—the riches of Vohu-manô (paradise; vohu-mano or Good Thought being the doorkeeper of heaven—see Farg. XXX, 31)—shall be given to him who works in this world for Mazda and wields agreeably to the will of Ahura the power he gave to him to relieve the poor (Farg. VIII, v. 19-49).
Thus while abrogating the Fersendajian usage of burning the dead among the devotees of Mah-Abad, Zerdusht the 13th (of the Persian prophets), who introduces many improvements and reforms, commands yet no other rites than charity.
1. The punishment, even if true, would not be so dreadful after all in this our age of enlightenment, when social equality and education is levelling all the castes.
2. Most assuredly the threat does not come from an initiated Rishi.
3. Twelve hours at least had to elapse between the death of the person and the burning or the destruction by any other means of the corpse of the dead. This old law was equally forgotten by the Brahmins as by the Zoroastrians. It was not the act of burning that was forbidden, but the burning before the corpse was empty, viz. before the inner principles had had time to get entirely liberated. As the aqua fortis was thought possessed of an occult property to that effect, hence the preliminary burning of the flesh by this means—with the Fersendajians.