Tower of Silence
The Parsis people of India came from Persia over one-thousand years ago and brought with them their Zoroastrian religion and burial practices. These practices, similar to the Tibetan Sky Burial practice, include the use of vultures in what is known as the Tower of Silence. For the Parsis people, after prayers and a ceremony, the dead are taken to the Tower of Silence. It is at this tower that the corpses are exposed to the sun, elements, and birds of prey. Largely, vultures have filled the roll of cleaning the meat from the bones of the dead as the Parsis feel that traditional burial or cremation pollutes the environment. This practice has been threatened in recent years as the vultures across India have been disappearing. By 2007 the vulture population across India had fallen by 99 percent. This loss was due to an NSAID called diclofenac that was given to cattle to help with joint pain. This drug causes kidney damage and death in vultures taking a massive toll on populations. This change in ecosystem has left the Parsis people with the problem of how to deal with their dead and honor their traditions.
The Parsis people have had to turn to man-made ingenuity to help compensate for the absence of the vultures in the form of solar energy concentrators. These devices help to speed up the dehydration and decomposition of the bodies but only on days where the sun shines. This causes problems during monsoon seasons in India. Without the help of vultures the process of cleaning a body and returning it to the earth goes from hours to weeks. It has also caused problems with neighboring communities who take issue with the sight and smell of a Tower of Silence. Several Tower of Silences have already had to be relocated because of issues with the smell and sight. The Indian government has outlawed the use of the drug responsible for damaging the vulture populations and vulture sanctuaries have been working for the past several years to breed and release populations back into the wild. For the Parsis people of India, the reintroduction and reemergence of the vultures would mean the continuation of their religion and end of life rituals.
Humans seem to have both a strong anxiety and fascination with death, having a profound awareness of our own mortality from a young age. We seem to do everything in our power to avoid death and prolong the inevitable, but often very little to change how we perceive death. For those that see their death coming, such as in the case of a terminal illness, is there something we could do to change how they process their own deaths? There is evidence that psychoactive drugs could provide this change.
Most research and investigation into the possible effects, both negative and positive, of psychoactive drugs were extinguished with the birth of the Controlled Substance Act in 1970. This act classified all psychoactive drugs as schedule 1 substances, categorizing them as unsafe and lacking any potential medical value. In recent years, however, we have seen an increasing amount of research on psychoactive drugs such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and psilocybin with one incredible possibility stemming from their use; the ability to change one’s perception of death.
Research has found that the use of these substances allows patients who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses to approach the existential crisis of death in a different way, one that common medications do not provide. Cancer patients receiving a single moderate dose of psilocybin with guidance of a counselor reported a change in the way they perceive the world around them, their families and relationships, and death. One dose of psilocybin was also found to have the lasting effect of lowering depression and anxiety levels in these patients, measured at both two and fourteen months after the experience.
Most interesting of possible psychoactive chemicals for use in end of life practices is DMT. DMT is an endogenous chemical produced by the pineal gland released by our brains most notably during dreaming and death. People who have tried this drug often describe seeing similar structures and often report a similar experience independent of culture. This calls into question what people experience when taking the so-called “God-molecule” and if this molecule creates a after death experience. Could this chemical provide people with a chance to experience death before it happens? Could this help people process what it will be like to die, before they do?
When talking about this topic, it is important to note that these recent studies have had a small sample size, due to their drug classification and social stigma surrounding them. While further studies must be conducted to determine possible uses for these drugs, I find it incredible that naturally occurring substances can have the power to change one’s entire perspective on life and death. The common end of life practice today is to provide the patient with comfort in the form of benzodiazepines and opioids. I am hopeful that these psychoactive chemicals can be used as an alternative to provide a different type of end of life care.