tower of silence
Bloom thinks in Hades of several alternatives to interring dead bodies in coffins: "Cremation better. Priests dead against it. Devilling for the other firm. Wholesale burners and Dutch oven dealers. Time of the plague. Quicklime feverpits to eat them. Lethal chamber. Ashes to ashes. Or bury at sea. Where is that Parsee tower of silence? Eaten by birds. Earth, fire, water." Bloom may have learned of the "Parsee tower of silence" from a travelogue on his bookshelf, which contains the answer to his question "Where": Bombay. But his knowledge of the importance of "Earth, fire, water" suggests that he has read more widely on the topic.
In chapter 10 of In the Track of the Sun, Frederick
Diodati Thompson describes checking into a hotel in Bombay and
going out later the same day to see one of the "Towers of
Silence": "These towers, five in number, are on Malabar Hill,
surrounded by a beautiful garden. The view of the city, the
sea, and the neighbouring bungalows is one of the finest in
Bombay. Perched on the top of the towers are usually a number
of vultures waiting for the approach of a funeral. The
procession stops near the tower; only the bearers of the
corpse enter with the body, and lay it, with all its clothing
removed, upon the tower's top. On their retirement the
vultures immediately descend, and in a few minutes devour the
flesh, leaving only the bones, which are thrown into a central
pit of the tower, to resolve themselves into dust and ashes"
Thompson explains that "The Parsees were originally
inhabitants of Persia, but were driven from their native
country twelve hundred years ago, and nearly all are now
living in Bombay, where many of them have acquired great
wealth" (155). They are a relatively small population, but
similar "sky burials" are performed in Tibet and Bhutan and in
various parts of China, India, and central Asia. Many of those
places clearly have chosen to expose corpses to birds because
the ground is too rocky to dig graves and there are not enough
trees to construct funeral pyres, but the Zoroastrians of
ancient Persia believed that dead bodies should not be brought
into contact with the three sacred substances that Bloom
names: "Earth, fire, water." They seem to have adopted
their practice long before fleeing to India to escape Muslim
persecution in the 7th and 8th centuries. At some point before
or shortly after their diaspora they invented the circular
stone structure they call the dakhma, or tower of
The other funeral practices in Bloom's list—cremation, mass
graves, burial at sea—are more familiar and require less
comment. Catholic priests are "Dead against" cremation
because of their odd doctrine (based on statements of St.
Paul) that at the Last Judgment human souls will be reunited
with the physical bodies they left behind at death. One can
imagine some formidable difficulties in reassembling bodies
whose atoms have been chewed by soil-dwellers, absorbed by
fungi and plants, ingested by herbivores, and taken up God
knows how many times by various other living beings, some of
them no doubt human, raising questions of contested ownership.
Perhaps for these reasons, "cremation was not officially
opposed by the Catholic Church until the late 19th century,"
as Slote observes from reading the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Nevertheless, destroying a body destined for incorruptible
glory has always seemed like a bad idea to Catholic
theologians. In Bloom's time one could actually be
excommunicated for putting instructions to be cremated in
"Devilling for the other firm" plays on a British use
of "devil" to mean a junior lawyer employed by a barrister to
help prepare cases. Bloom may be thinking that cremation is so
heterodox a practice that a priest who defended it would be
serving the Devil rather than the Lord. "Wholesale burners
and Dutch oven dealers" clearly continues the meditation
on cremation, but very obscurely. A Dutch oven is a heavy
cooking pot with a heavy lid that can perform slow cooking on
top of a fire. Is Bloom imagining a large crematorium firm
that doubles in cookware?
His thoughts turn next to times when mass death makes tidy
interment in private graves impractical: "Time of the
plague. Quicklime feverpits to eat them." Quicklime
(calcium oxide) is an unstable alkaline substance that
produces intense heat when it combines with water and carbon
dioxide. It has long been sprinkled over corpses that cannot
be buried in deep graves, not "to eat them" but because the
heating and dehydration involved in the chemical reaction
reduce odor and the threat of contagion by halting bacterial
putrefaction. Quicklime actually helps preserve bodies,
sometimes to the point of mummification.
Generations of annotators seem to have nothing to say about "Lethal chamber," and I have nothing to add to their silence here. "Ashes to ashes" echoes the burial service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "we therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life." The naval alternative to ground burial, "Or bury at sea," requires no explanation.