Parsee tower

Parsee tower of silence

In Brief

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. 

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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" (155).

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 silence.

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 one's will.

"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.

JH 2021
Photograph of one of the five towers of silence that existed in Bombay when Frederick Thompson visited. Source: In the Track of the Sun, p. 156.