Word of The Month: Excarnation

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Marilyn Courtot, a frequent guest on my bridge cruises, offers this month’s word of the month, excarnation.

Excarnation – noun ex·car·na·tion ˌekˌskärˈnāshən

Removal of flesh (as by putrefaction) especially from a corpse

The act of a soul leaving the body after death

Origin and etymology – Late Latin excarnatus, past participle of excarnare from Latin ex-+carn-, caro flesh

Marilyn writes in her travelogue, “The Tower of Silence is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation – that is, for dead bodies to be exposed to carrion birds.”

Zoroastrian exposure of the dead is first attested in the mid-5th century BC Histories of Herodotus, but the use of towers is first documented in the early 9th century BC. The doctrinal rationale for exposure is to avoid contact with Earth or Fire, both of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.

One of the earliest literary descriptions of such a building appears in the late 9th-century Epistles of Manushchihr, where the technical term is astodan, “ossuary.” Another technical term that appears in the 9th/10th-century texts of Zoroastrian tradition (the so-called Pahlavi books) is dakhmag, for any place for the dead. This Zoroastrian Middle Persian term is a borrowing from Avestan dakhma, of uncertain meaning but related to interment and commonly translated as “grave.” In the Avesta, the term is pejorative and does not signify a construction of any kind. In the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman, dakhma continues as deme or dema. Yet another term that appears in the 9th/10th-century texts is dagdah, “prescribed place.” The word also appears in later Zoroastrian texts of both India and Iran, but in 20th-century India came to signify the lowest grade of temple fire. In India the term doongerwadi came into use after a Dakhma was constructed on a hill of that name.

In Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, exposure of the dead is also considered to be an individual’s final act of charity, providing the birds with what would otherwise be destroyed.

The English language term “Tower of Silence” is a neologism attributed to Robert Murphy, a translator for the British colonial government of India in the early 19th century.

Excarnation used in a sentence:

This could be an example of excarnation, which many Native American peoples indeed practiced. –Boneyard Creek

The skeletons show many cut marks that were most likely made by defleshing or excarnation after death. –Tiwanaku empire

…to the spot where he left Raxmoruw’s body, constructs the prototypical Tower of Silence and places the body on it for excarnation by birds of prey, in the manner still considered ritually correct by Zoroastrians to this day. –Tahmuras

What interesting words would you enjoy sharing with our readers? Please submit any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected]