Apr 21, 2023

Corpse Demon


LATIF NASSER: All right. We're gonna begin today's episode at a golf course/wedding venue, sort of.


LATIF: With our contributing editor and resident ER doctor Avir Mitra.

AVIR: Parsi time.

LATIF: Now one thing you need to know at the jump of this story is that Avir was raised in part in this religion that is mostly practiced in South Asia called Zoroastrianism. In particular, Indian Zoroastrians are called Parsis. It's not a big religion—less than 200,000 followers. But a fair number of them happen to be here in South Jersey.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Hi, how are you?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Avir: I'm good, how are you?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: You're Avir, right?]

LATIF: They rent out this space once a month to socialize, read scripture, eat tons of homemade Indian food. But this time, Avir, we did not send him there for any of that.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Avir: I think I'll go grab some snacks.]

LATIF: Although it sounds like he did do some of that.

LULU MILLER: [laughs]

AVIR: Okay, so I'll have to be sticking this in your face. I hope you don't mind.

LATIF: This time, he was there to talk with his priest ...

CAWAS DESAI: My name is Cawas Desai.

LATIF: ... about the mystery of what happens after you die. But not at all in the way that you think.

LULU: I'm Lulu.

LATIF: And I'm Latif. This is Radiolab.

LULU: And we should mention that this episode does deal with death, and there are a few brief graphic descriptions as well as a couple of swear words. Please listen with care. All right, here's Avir.

AVIR: Every time I tell people about how we—I guess our burial—well, it's not even—I don't know what the word is, not burial.

CAWAS DESAI: It's disposing of the dead.

AVIR: Yeah. I get a lot of weird looks.

CAWAS DESAI: Why? I mean ...

AVIR: Well, maybe you could tell me what—what is our method of disposal of bodies?

CAWAS DESAI: The method of disposal is exposure.

LULU: Exposure?

AVIR: Mm-hmm.

LULU: What does that mean?

AVIR: We take our dead to this place called the tower of silence.

LATIF: The tower of silence.

AVIR: I've been to one in Mumbai. It's this hill in the middle of this big bustling city, but when you get there it's like just this super forested quiet area. It almost feels like a jungle, it's so dense. And at the top of it there's a flat, like, cement slab in a circle that's open to the sky.

LATIF: Okay.

AVIR: And there's walls around it but there's no roof on it. And there's different layers to it. The adult men go on the outer edge of this cement slab, women will go in the middle, and children, if they die, will go near the center.

LULU: Hmm.

AVIR: And there's thousands of vultures surrounding this place, just waiting.

LULU: Wow!

CAWAS DESAI: The vultures would ring the whole walls all the way—all the way around, hundreds of them. And then after the body was left, the vultures would descend in there.

AVIR: And yeah, the vultures just devour the body, and within a few hours all that's left is just a few bones.

LATIF: Whoa!

AVIR: Yeah. We call it a sky burial. And I don't know, I just think it's incredible. Like, in the religion the idea is that the second someone dies there's a corpse demon called Nasu. And they believe that that demon is what starts to cause the decay of the body. And so, you know, when the vultures eat the body, they're essentially protecting us from this demon.



AVIR: So that's one thing. There's also a more practical reason: if you were to bury the body, that's sort of polluting the earth which they don't wanna do. If they burn the body, that's polluting the sky. And they felt that if the vultures eat the body it recycles it back into nature.

AVIR: So these people were like environmentalists.

CAWAS DESAI: Yes, they were the original environmentalists.

AVIR: That's amazing.

LATIF: It's pretty metal.

LULU: It's beautiful.

AVIR: I—I agree. And that—that's the way it is, that's the way it's been for thousands and thousands of years up until 2006. This one Parsi woman named Dhun Baria, her mom died, and she had this suspicion. "Is my mom in the clear? Has her body been consumed? So she sneaks up into the tower, climbs up to the top, and what she saw there was completely horrendous. She felt like she had to tell the world.

[NEWS CLIP: This is CNN, IBN.]

[NEWS CLIP: Photographs from inside the towers of silence, where the Parsi community in Mumbai disposes of its dead. These forbidden photographs are creating big ripples in the small community.]

AVIR: There's just bodies, bloated, rotting bodies, disfigured bodies.

LULU: Oh, that’s horrifying.

AVIR: Just kind of plopped around that area.


AVIR: And where you'd normally just see hundreds of vultures at the tower of silence, you don't see a single one.

CAWAS DESAI: The bodies were left to decompose at the tower of silence because there were not enough vultures to—to clean the body and pick the body clean.

AVIR: The vultures are just gone.

LATIF: At the tower?

AVIR: Like, everywhere. All over town, all over the state, all over India. Almost overnight they're all gone.

LULU: Wow, okay, so the question is where the heck did they all go?

AVIR: Yeah, that's the mystery.

AVIR: Which brings us ...

MUNIR VIRANI: When species are in dire straits ...

AVIR: ... to this guy.

MUNIR VIRANI: ... we wear our cape, we swing through the jungles and the forests and we—we save the day, right?

AVIR: A man by the name of Munir Virani.

MUNIR VIRANI: Here we go.

AVIR: He's a Kenyan biologist who studies birds. And back in the late-'90s he worked for the Peregrine Fund, which is this organization that basically saves birds of prey. And he had just gotten married, so he's at his new home in Nairobi just a couple weeks into his marriage.

MUNIR VIRANI: The telephone rang, it was Rick.

AVIR: …his boss at the Peregrine Fund.

MUNIR VIRANI: And he said, "Well, I'm calling you because I wanted to find out, how do you feel about going to India?"

AVIR: So he tells his wife, "This whole marriage thing's been great. I'm really excited about all this stuff. I gotta go."

MUNIR VIRANI: So off I went.

AVIR: He flies from Kenya to India. Gets off the plane in Mumbai. And one of the first things he does he starts walking around this park. It's like a tiger reserve.

MUNIR VIRANI: And I remember distinctly this big banyan tree, which is a ficus tree, it's a tree of religious significance in the—in Hindu culture.

AVIR: It's like a tree of life type thing. And what he sees are, like ...

MUNIR VIRANI: At least 17 vultures that were lying, sort of, you know, stomach down, wings spread out.

AVIR: You mean they were dead?

MUNIR VIRANI: They were all dead. They were dead.

AVIR: 17 dead vultures underneath him.

LULU: Oh, what a stark, like, image. What a metaphor, just the tree of life and then all this death.


AVIR: And this makes no sense to Munir, because vultures are supposed to be super tough animals.

LULU: Hmm. Tough like how?

AVIR: I mean, they literally eat dead things, you know? The great thing about living things is they're pretty healthy, you know? They're healthy enough to be alive.

LULU: Yeah.

AVIR: And so I wanna get some of that, you know? Whatever you got going on I wanna put in my belly. But if you died, something went wrong with you, and now I'm just gonna make you part of me essentially by eating you, that's a bold move. But secondly, the second you die, you know, all these bacteria, viruses and fungi that you've been keeping at bay by being alive and having an immune system, you know, now all of a sudden they start taking over. So the way the vultures survive this is they have a super acidic stomach. It's up to a hundred times more acidic than our stomachs.

LATIF: It's like battery acid stomach.

AVIR: Yeah, exactly. Like, they can eat anything and it just melts away.

LULU: Wow!


AVIR: Some species also piss and shit acid, okay, onto themselves.

LULU: [laughs] Poop boots.

AVIR: [laughs] Poop boots. Because that keeps the bugs away.

LULU: It’s a little chemical defense?

AVIR: Exactly.

LULU: Wow.

AVIR: And if someone tries to eat the vulture, some species have evolved this response to just vomit acid on the predator.

LULU: Wow, that is gnarly!

AVIR: Yeah. And it turns out that all of this is so important because if you think about it, they're basically gobbling up all the diseases and bacteria, rabies, anthrax, all these things. And it stops with them. Like, they're the end of the line. They're like nature's immune system.

LULU: Rad!

LATIF: Yeah, that's a superpower.

AVIR: And they play such an important role that a bird just keeps evolving to become a vulture.

LULU: Whoa!

AVIR: This happened four times independently on Earth that we know of. Like, just across the world. Like, you know what I mean? It's almost like if I came out with, like, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd or some—like, I wrote that album and then someone else also wrote that album and, like, four people across the country just wrote that same album.

LULU: Why is that your metaphor? I love that.

LATIF: That's a really weird metaphor.

AVIR: And so going back to Munir looking at this banyan tree, it's super weird that there's all these dead vultures underneath it. And it gets even more puzzling because these vultures are not like old, decrepit, you know, vultures. And it doesn't look like someone shot them, you know, they didn't, like, get electrocuted in a power line or something. Like ...

MUNIR VIRANI: The birds were in great body condition, they had a lot of body fat.

AVIR: There's just no reason for these birds to be dead.

LULU: Huh.

MUNIR VIRANI: This was like solving a detec—you know, like a murder mystery.

AVIR: So Munir's on the case, and what he needs is to get some dead vultures over to a lab in the US.

LULU: Okay.

AVIR: So he goes to India, and he's a young whippersnapper, and he's like ...

MUNIR VIRANI: This is what we need to do. We need to get permits to send tissue samples so that people around the world can look at them.

AVIR: India's like, "No, you can't take these tissue samples."

LATIF: Why are they worried about that?

LULU: Yeah.

AVIR: You know, it just kind of got tied up in red tape because, you know, India doesn't want people taking their natural products and animals and seeds and wildlife and, you know, making money off of it.

LATIF: Okay.

AVIR: And by the time he's trying to negotiate with the Indian government, the vultures have already started dying off at an incredibly rapid rate. Like, in India, 95 percent of vultures are already dead.


LULU: Oh my God! That is—I mean, that is like a—just that's insane.

AVIR: It is. And so he's like, "Shit, like, what do I do now?" So he goes to Nepal, tries again. Same thing. They say no. And so he decides he's gonna go to Pakistan, a neighboring country, and see if he can get some dead vultures there. But ...

MUNIR VIRANI: I look in the skies and there are thousands of vultures. And I mean thousands.

AVIR: Wow.

MUNIR VIRANI: You come across a dead buffalo or a cow, and there may be 200 vultures that are trying to get into it.

AVIR: But is—but isn't it bad because the vultures don't seem to be dying over there so you may miss the problem?

MUNIR VIRANI: Oh, there's a twist: we're still finding a few dead vultures, and they're showing the exact clinical signs they should not be dead. Right?

AVIR: He's there right before it happens. It's almost like he gets to rewind time just a little bit.

LULU: Wild!


AVIR: So he's like, oh, this is perfect.

MUNIR VIRANI: Like, okay, this is where we should work, right? But of course, the question lies: are we gonna get tissue samples out of that country?

AVIR: He goes to the main guy in Pakistan, the bureaucrat who's gonna give him permission, and he's like, "All right, I gotta change my approach. So how am I gonna do this?"

MUNIR VIRANI: First of all, the India-Pakistan cricket series was going on, right? And as people know, there's a big rivalry between India and Pakistan. He looks at me and he says, "Munir, you want me to give you a permit to export tissue samples? Give me one reason why I should give you that." And I said, "Doctor Khalid, if you don't give us this permit then the Indians will beat you to it."

LULU: He bluffs?

AVIR: He bluffs.

MUNIR VIRANI: Boom, I just knew I had him!


MUNIR VIRANI: So they gave us permits to export tissue samples.

LULU: Wow, go Munir!

AVIR: Yeah.

MUNIR VIRANI: So off we started.

AVIR: They get together a group of young research assistants, and basically had them pick up these dead vultures and cut them open. And what they see is striking.

MUNIR VIRANI: The inner organs were covered with a white, chalky paste.

AVIR: Does that look like toothpaste? Like, what does it look like?

MUNIR VIRANI: There's like powder, white powder all over the liver, the heart, the lungs, everywhere.

LULU: Can you wipe it off? Like, it's literally a substance?

AVIR: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

LATIF: Weird.

LULU: Weird!

AVIR: So he goes to his senior colleague, this guy Lindsay Oaks.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

AVIR: Oaks takes one look and he's like, "Oh, I know what that is. It's kidney failure."

LULU: Huh, what?

AVIR: It turns out that if you shut down a vulture's kidneys all this stuff backs up, turns into a paste, and gets deposited in all the organs.

LULU: What stuff?

AVIR: What that stuff is is uric acid.

LULU: Oh, birdshit!

AVIR: Which is bird pee, birdshit. It's the stuff that's making their pee and poop so acidic. They can't pee it out, and so now it's just—it's just depositing in their joints, in their organs, and you die.

LULU: Wow!

AVIR: So now they know, like, what's killing the vultures is kidney failure, but no one knows what's causing the kidney failure. As this story is progressing, the situation is escalating, and people are starting to get spooked.

LATIF: So it is happening in Pakistan, too?

AVIR: Yes, it's happening really quick. Like, when he first got there, there were 3,000 nesting vultures. And the next year it was half that. And the year after that it was half that again. And four years in they're down to just 400 vultures.


AVIR: Just like that. So the leading theory at this time ...

LULU: Yeah?

AVIR: ... is that this is a virus.


AVIR: Right? Because look, it started in Southeast Asia, so they're thinking okay, maybe going east to west this virus is spreading, Southeast Asia, Nepal, India.

MUNIR VIRANI: And if this virus moves further west into Pakistan, Afghanistan, into the Middle East and comes into Africa where vultures play such an important role, the consequences would be completely dire.

AVIR: Remember, these vultures are like nature's immune system.

MUNIR VIRANI: They perform probably the most important role than any other animal or groups of animals combined.

AVIR: Like, if we don't have them digesting all this bacteria, diseases and viruses, who knows what's gonna happen to the entire world?

MUNIR VIRANI: So we're really fighting against time.

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab.

LATIF: All right. Where are we at?

AVIR: Things are looking very grim.

LULU: Yeah. It seems like all the vultures on the planet are dying, and it is up to Munir and his team to try to stop it?

AVIR: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, just to step back, we know they're dying of kidney failure. Now what's causing the kidney failure? In theory, it could be any number of things. It could be a virus, it could be bacteria, fungi, it could be environmental changes, it could be toxins. And so people are testing for this and that, and they're just not finding anything.

LULU: Hmm.

AVIR: And then in 2001, Munir and his colleague Lindsay Oaks ...

MUNIR VIRANI: We were in a meeting in Spain.

AVIR: ... they're at some sort of bird conference.

LATIF: Vulture Con.

AVIR: Vulture Con, exactly. They're in their head-to-toe vulture costumes.

LATIF: Yep. I could picture it. I could picture it.

AVIR: And, you know, this is not a great year for Vulture Con. Everyone's covered in talcum powder.

AVIR: And I remember Lindsay and I sitting in the square in Seville, sipping espressos.

AVIR: So Lindsay's like, let's just start from scratch here.

MUNIR VIRANI: You know, just get a piece of paper.

AVIR: They pull out, like, a napkin and just start writing on the napkin.

MUNIR VIRANI: We were like kids putting down these flow diagrams, right?

AVIR: "Okay, what do we know? Kidney failure. What can cause kidney failure?" Toxins. Nothing. Viruses. Nothing. And then, Munir says, Lindsay asks this question ...

MUNIR VIRANI: He said, "Okay."

AVIR: ... that kind of cracks the whole thing open.

MUNIR VIRANI: "What's going into the vultures?" I was like, "Well, food."

AVIR: Generally cattle, right? Livestock. And so Lindsay's like, "We've been focusing so much on what goes into the vultures ..."

LULU: Hmm.

MUNIR VIRANI: Have we seen what's going into the livestock?


AVIR: So they take a new approach. They go back to Pakistan, and they start going around to different villages, and just knocking on people’s doors being like, "Hi, I have a bunch of questions for you about your cattle," you know?

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

AVIR: And as they're processing the surveys they're noticing, like, oh, this phrase keeps popping up over and over again.

MUNIR VIRANI: It just stood out.

AVIR: We give them ...

MUNIR VIRANI: Diclofenac.

LULU: Diclofenac.


AVIR: Yeah. This drug diclofenac. It's actually a painkiller. It's in this class of drugs called NSAIDs, Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs. That includes, you know, drugs like Advil, Motrin, Aleve, ibuprofen.

LULU: Hmm.

AVIR: And these farmers were giving diclofenac to cattle, because cattle, just like people, you know, get old, get aches and pains.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

AVIR: They wake up one morning and their knees hurt.

MUNIR VIRANI: If your cow had a limp and was unable to carry the produce to market, you just pumped it with diclofenac. You just did.

AVIR: And even after the cow gets, like, too old to pull your cart or whatever, the farmers a lot of times, at least the Hindu ones, would still give them diclofenac because they're seen as sacred animals. Half of me is Zoroastrian, the other half of me is Hindu. So Hindus, you know, they don't eat cows. I mean, I do eat beef, but don't tell my grandma, or whatever. I'll never forget, I was like in eighth grade, and I—and I was like telling my grandma who doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Bengali, and she's like, "We don't eat cow." And I was like, "Yeah I do, because I love burgers, and that's made of cow." And she's like, "No, no, it's not. You don't eat cow." So then I called my dad into the room. I was like, "Dad, aren't burgers made out of cows?" And he just straight up was like, "No," and just walked out of the room. And I was, like, confused for, like, five years after that as a child.

LULU: [laughs]

AVIR: So anyway, Munir and the team realize that farmers are giving their cattle this drug, this painkiller diclofenac. So then take some organs, send them to the US, and test for levels of the drug. And sure enough, all the vultures that were covered in that chalky white paste ...

MUNIR VIRANI: Came back positive.

LULU: Huh.


MUNIR VIRANI: And so suddenly a pattern was evolving.

LATIF: But that's still not a—I feel like we've gotten—you've connected the dots but it's the dot that needs to be connected. It's still—it's now it's in the vulture, but it—we don't know for sure it's causing the sickness.

AVIR: I love that you said that, Latif. Yes, we see diclofenac in the vultures that are dead, but is that the reason that they're dead?

MUNIR VIRANI: And so now we have to show that experimentally.

AVIR: So this is where things have to get really dark.

LATIF: Oh, this story has been just a funfetti cake until now.

LULU: [laughs]

AVIR: Yeah. So I told you, you know, vultures dying left and right. Munir and his team studying these vultures, they see all these poor baby vultures ...

MUNIR VIRANI: These were birds that fell off the nests after their parents died.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

AVIR: And so they have been over time sort of sheltering some of these baby vultures and raising them.

LULU: And giving them what to feed? Like little dead rats?

AVIR: Yeah, little dead rats. All the little, you know, whatever. Like, bougie vulture food.

LULU: Okay.

AVIR: These vultures are doing great. And they realize the only way that they can really ...

LULU: Don't tell me.

AVIR: Yeah.

LULU: Keep telling me. Say it.

LATIF: I—I don't know where you're going. Where are you going?

AVIR: Okay. The only way they can really prove for sure if diclofenac kills vultures is to poison their babies.

LATIF: Oh, okay.

AVIR: They swapped out their perfect Whole Foods meals with some buffalo that had been given diclofenac. And they died. And on top of that, they realized all the vultures died in India first because the drug was approved there, like, four years before it was approved in Pakistan.

LULU: Whoa!


LULU: So it wasn't an ecological spread, it was a market spread that they were seeing, like, wash across the continent.

LATIF: Whoa!

LULU: That's wild.

AVIR: Yeah.

MUNIR VIRANI: It was amazing. It just—it felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my back.

AVIR: And so in May, 2003, Munir and his team go back to Vulture Con. And Lindsay Oaks gets up on stage and announces it.

MUNIR VIRANI: With his very soft voice and he just talks about the meticulous way ...

AVIR: Here's what we studied, here's what we found, here's what we did to our pet vultures, here's what happened.

MUNIR VIRANI: And then there was pin-drop silence. And then there was this applause that just went on and didn't stop and people stood up.

AVIR: They all realized, like, this is it.

LULU: Wait, I guess I'm just wondering, was there any parallel? Were US vultures dying off?

AVIR: Yeah, I think the difference is, like, we don't care as much about cows in the US.

LULU: Oh, so they're not living—we're eating the meat, so the vultures aren't getting it.

AVIR: Right, we just eat them when they're, like, young and healthy before they have any problems.

LULU: It's so weird that this is about, like, caring for the cow. It makes you want to, like, make the cow not be in pain which then surprisingly apparently kills all the vultures.

AVIR: Yeah, it's weird. And, you know, as a doctor I can kind of relate to that. I prescribe these NSAID drugs like ibuprofen, Motrin, Aleve, Advil. You know, I prescribe these all the time. And believe it or not, one of the most common causes of kidney injury in humans is also NSAIDS.

LATIF: Really?

AVIR: Yeah. Which is funny, right? Because, like, we were looking at these vultures saying, like, "Oh, that's so bizarre that this diclofenac is messing up their kidneys." Meanwhile, in a different parallel universe of medicine, because we're not talking to—I don't talk to vulture biologists, they don't talk to me, right? We’re figuring the same thing out in humans.


LULU: Wow. Wait, so when did humans become—when did we become aware of this?

LATIF: This sounds really bad.

LULU: Yeah, it does.

AVIR: There were case studies coming out all along the way, but the landmark study was in the year 1999.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: Okay.

AVIR: So interesting, right? Because the vulture thing is happening at the same time.

LULU: Yeah. Yeah.

AVIR: And we've also learned that they can cause intestinal bleeding, strokes, heart attacks. All these problems trickle down from the use of NSAIDS.

LATIF: Whoa! Why?

AVIR: Yeah, basically, you know, NSAIDS are inhibiting this molecule that cause pain. And so you take them and you don't feel pain, which is great. But it turns out that these same molecules do a lot of really important stuff in the body, and so when you inhibit them, you know, you cause all these other problems that no one anticipated when we made these drugs.

LATIF: I—okay, I have a million questions but I'm gonna just cut to the chase. Like, we take these drugs all the time. All of us. Like, should we stop taking these drugs?

AVIR: No. No, I don't want to scare you into thinking, like, these are evil drugs. They are great drugs, they work really great. But they're not candy. The way we think about it in the hospital as a sure—as a quick, like, thing is like, if you're over 65 and taking these drugs every single day for months on end, like, see a doctor. Let's figure something out for you.

LULU: Oh, interesting. Okay.

AVIR: If you're young, like, don't worry about this. If you're healthy, don't worry about this. And in general, don't freak out about this at all, but this is more of a macro scale, you know?

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Like, I just see there being a vulture-faced reaper who is like, "Oh, you're trying to avoid pain? Oh, you're trying to avoid death?" Like, it's—like—like, if you—if you budge it over here it's gonna budge right back over there, you know?

AVIR: Mm-hmm. That's how it feels to me. As, like, a doctor it's very frustrating because, you know, what am I supposed to do? And, you know, I'm—I'm gonna keep taking these meds, I'm gonna keep giving these meds. They work. They do—they—they do help people a lot. But yeah, like you said Latif, there's—there's a little cost there.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Or, like, a big cost I guess if you're one of those unlucky people who gets sick and dies from the drug.

AVIR: Yeah.

LATIF: Or, I guess, if you're a vulture.

AVIR: Well, the vultures are doing okay, actually. Scientists found an alternative drug for the cows, and India, Pakistan and Nepal, they all got together and actually banned diclofenac for veterinary use.


LULU: Okay.

AVIR: And the populations of vultures stabilize.

LULU: Caw!

AVIR: So that's that story.

LATIF: Huh. Does that—what does that mean for the tower of silence? Is it back?

AVIR: No, not exactly. Because, you know, these vultures only have, like, one offspring per year.

LULU: Oof.

AVIR: So it's a slow process, you know?

LULU: Huh. So what are Zoroastrians doing in the meantime when they—when they lose somebody?

AVIR: So yeah, for Parsis, it's still rough. They started by trying to use chemicals that they would put on the bodies to help them decompose faster. Another thing they considered was putting a big sun glass. Like, basically think of, like, a magnifying glass where you, like—if you were a kid you'd, like, burn ants with a magnifying glass.

LULU: Yeah, this feels dangerous.

AVIR: So they were—they were thinking about that.

AVIR: We have to sit. Here, sit over here.

AVIR: Eventually I started wondering ...

AVIR: Well, what about you? When you die, what do you want to do?

AVIR: ... what does my mom want?

JASMINE MITRA: Well, since there are no vultures anymore—which I actually think is a great idea, but since there aren't any vultures left, I would prefer to be cremated. Or the new green burial thing, you know, I wouldn't mind if a tree grew using my body.

AVIR: But when my mom said that kind of thought, like, wait a minute, like, no. Like, I thought the whole point was that the only way to get to heaven was to go through the tower of silence.

CAWAS DESAI: Oh, yeah. The orthodox believe that they won't go to heaven if their bodies are disposed of except in a tower of silence.

AVIR: But my priest says ...

CAWAS DESAI: As far as I'm concerned they're—they're—they're daft, they're nuts.

AVIR: There's no vultures right now. So the tower of silence is off the table.

CAWAS DESAI: My father died in hospital in Boston, and we had his body cremated. He—he himself had said that, "Look, if I die, don't take—don't have my body shipped back to India. Have it cremated over here." You don't go to heaven or hell depending on how your body's disposed of. I mean, who cares? Once you—once you're dead, you're dead. I mean, really.

AVIR: You're sort of a rebellious priest.

CAWAS DESAI: I'm not a rebellious priest, I mean, I just think for myself.

AVIR: He says he's just being practical, which is what Parsis do.

CAWAS DESAI: It's what Parsis do, what they should do. [laughs]

AVIR: The whole reason our religion created the tower of silence in the first place is because it was practical, simple, elegant. And now it's not—until the vultures come back, anyway.

AVIR: Cool, thank you. I don't have anything else.

CAWAS DESAI: You're very welcome.

AVIR: I'm glad to have an uncle that knows everything about everything.

CAWAS DESAI: Stop calling me uncle, for crying out loud. Makes me feel old and decrepit.

AVIR: [laughs]

LULU: Contributing editor Avir Mitra. That's our show for this week. This episode was reported by Avir Mitra with help from Sindhu Gnanasambandan. It was produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan with music and sound design by Jeremy Bloom, with mixing help by Arianne Wack. It was edited by a rebellious editor Pat Walters who has been known to think for himself and to occasionally spit battery acid urine when—when attacked. Watch out for that one. Special thanks to Daniel Solomon, Heather Natola and the Raptor Trust in New Jersey, and Avir's uncle Hoshung Mola who told him about this story over Thanksgiving dinner. That's how the reporting gets done, over mashed potatoes and stuffing and not hamburgers because Avir doesn't eat hamburgers. I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF: I'm Latif. Let us know if you want us to include vulture poop boots in our next round of merch.

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: That's it. Thanks so much for listening.

LULU: Thanks, vultures. Caw! Caw! Bye bye!

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]



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New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.

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