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For Whom the Bell Tolls

There are many death rituals that are observed at a burial service or a funeral, that have their origins steeped in history. The ringing of the death knell or funeral troll (one of three important bells) is just one example. It’s commonly depicted in historical films and television.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a knell has two primary meanings. The first is the sound of a bell being rung slowly. This bell is rung to indicate something such as a recent death, an impending funeral, or a local disaster. (See source 4) When you hear the term “death knell” it might refer to the practice of ringing a bell to signal a death. (See source 1)

Going further back into history, Scotland can trace using the death knell back to the 1400s. Belief in the supernatural was common back then. The church had condoned the practice of the ringing of bells to frighten away evil spirits. To deter evil spirits from entering the body, the dead bell would be rung. The ringing of the dead bell was for two reasons: First, it announced the death, and second, it was purported to drive away the evil spirits that waited at the foot of the dead person’s bed.

In the 16th century, the specifics surrounding how death knells were to be practiced were written into England Canon Law by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. From there, it was used in local communities as a way for the church to inform others of someone’s soon demise or recent passing. (See source 2)

Church bells still often can be heard ringing to honour the dead. A death knell’s sound is different than a regular church bell, in the sense that it is more muffled. The bells of Westminster Abbey are of similar sounding.

In general, when a church bell rings, it has any of these meanings below:

  • Someone is approaching death - The first meaning is that someone is dying and needs clergy summoned to his or her bedside. This is typically when the bell rings once. This is often referred to as the Passing Bell.

  • Announcing the passing of someone - The bell also rings to announce the death of someone in the community. It rings 2-3 times depending on the church. This is often referred to as the Death Knell.

  • Announcing a funeral - The bell is again rung at the funeral to memorialize the deceased. (See source 2) This is often referred to as the Corpse Bell. It can also be rung at the burial site.

In Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, back in the 70s and perhaps earlier, when anyone heard muffled church bells ringing, it was common practice to listen carefully. The tolling of this bell would be heard at all hours of the day or night. One type of chiming pattern was known as a teller. Tellers were repetitive strokes that gave information. First, we could figure out the gender of the deceased. The traditional ringing calls for the funeral bell to ring six times (twice three times) for a woman. The bell would toll nine times (three times three) for a man. Secondly, we would count the number of times it rang. This often indicated the age of the departed, and thus we could deduce who had just recently died. Thirdly, we were taught to stop and offer a prayer for the newly departed. An Old English proverb puts this death knell into perspective. It goes, “When the bell begins to toll, Lord have mercy on the soul! When thou dost hear a toll or knell, then think upon thy passing bell.” Sadly, that practice isn’t as normalized in 2023 as it was when I was little.

In 1997, the death knell sounded across England to honor Princess Diana on the day of her funeral. In present times, the ringing of a death knell is especially common at a police officer or fire fighter’s funeral. In A fireman’s funeral knell is based upon the pattern of the original method of communicating that a firefighter had fallen. That was the telegraph. The telegraph operator would tap out the word “fell.” This was done with five measured dashes, a pause, and then repeated two more times. (See source 1)

Death knells can be sounded at anyone’s funeral if requested and if your church has bells (with clappers or perhaps digitalized). The funeral director just needs to get in contact with the clergy and work out the details. Some, if not most funeral homes also have digitalized bells that can be sounded at a funeral in house if requested.

In conclusion, the tolling of a Passing Bell, a Death Knell or a Corpse Bell is a good reminder for all of us that death is inevitable. It is just one aspect of a death ritual, and one way to honour and remember those who have passed.

Therefore, send not to know,

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

- John Donne

Quoted Blog sources

2. Death Knell: What Happens When It Rings?, Updated 9/9/2022, by Sam Tetault

3. What Is A Death Knell? How To Toll the Funeral Bells, By Karen Roldan

4. “Knell.” Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Other sources consulted to create this blog include:

5. “Abbey Bells: History.” Westminster Abbey.

6. Apple, R. W. Jr. “Across the Kingdom, Britons Knell the Death of Their Princess With Silence.” NY Times Archives. 7 September 1997.

7. The Churchman’s Companion. Joseph Masters: page 471. Vol. III.

8. Timbs, John. Things Not Generally Known. Lockwood & Company: page 196. London: 1867.

9. Walters, Henry Beauchamp. Church Bells of England. University of California Libraries: page 157.

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