Different places across the globe have their own unique ways of marking someone’s death. Throughout history, many cultures used what’s known as a death knell to inform the community of someone’s death. A death knell is the process of ringing a church bell after someone’s death. The way the person rang this bell signified whether the person was near death or recently deceased.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Death Knell Definition
- What a Death Knell Ringing Means
- What a Death Knell Sounds Like
- Origin of Death Knells
Today, this practice still lives on as a death announcement. It’s more well-known in our society as a death toll or funeral toll, but it’s true that bells still play a part in modern funerals. The term “death knell” has taken several different meanings today, so it’s important to understand the role of this word in the English language.
More importantly, what happens when a death knell rings?
Death Knell Definition
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. When you hear the term “death knell” it might refer to the practice of ringing a bell to signal a death.
The other meaning of knell is to indicate the end of something. This is usually meant in a negative way, such as the “death knell for hope” or the ending of hope. It also might signal an impending war or another unfortunate event. As you can see, this term encompasses multiple definitions in modern-day.
What a Death Knell Ringing Means
As mentioned previously, each toll of the death knell has a different meaning. Since it was typically used by the church, each local parish had its own language for understanding the significance behind the bell’s ringing. In general, when a death knell 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.
- 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.
- Announcing a funeral - The bell is again rung at the funeral as a way to memorialize the deceased.
Today, church bells still often ring in honor of the dead. Though the term might not be as common, many local churches still follow this tradition as a way to inform the community of someone’s impending death.
In some communities, the ringing took on greater significance. The number of tolls could indicate the age and sex of the departed.
However, the term “death knell” nowadays is most often used as a figure of speech. If something is a “death knell,” it’s marking an end. For example, “The man’s poor communication skills were the death knell for his romantic relationship.”
What a Death Knell Sounds Like
A death knell doesn’t always sound like a regular church bell. Traditionally, the bells were half-muffled. To do this, someone would cover half of the bell’s clapper with a leather muffle. Because of this, the bells produce a softer chime.
The sound of this death knell feels haunting for many, especially since it’s a distorted version of a church bell chime. If you’ve never heard one for yourself, an easy example is the bells of England’s Westminster Abbey. These use the same leather muffle on their bells, so the sound is eerily similar to a death knell.
Most recently, the death knell sounded across England to honor Princess Diana on the day of her funeral in 1997. The ringing of these church bells is a huge sign of respect.
Origin of Death Knells
The practice of ringing a death knell dates back to 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.
During the plague, it wasn’t uncommon for the death knell to ring frequently. One person notes in their diary in July of 1665 about their sad feelings when they hear this sound. They write, “It was a sad noise to hear our bell to tell and ring so often to-day either for death or burials; I think five or six times.”
When the death knell rang, people in the community took note. They were silent, either in prayer or reflection. In many ways, the ringing itself acted as a symbol of death.
It’s a constant reminder that death is not far away for any of us, no matter what we might think. The tolling of this bell would be heard at all hours of the day or night. Death truly stops for no one.
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.”
The practice of ringing a death knell was popular until the 19th century. From then on, it became less common. This might be due to rising populations, and also Europe was less affected by disease during this time.
Today, the death knell only rings in honor of royalty or clergy or to announce a local funeral. This sound is still very recognizable, and it’s commonly depicted in historical films and television.
Ringing in Death
Death knells are more a traditional way to find out if someone died. They’re also a reminder of death. While it’s hard to imagine today, people were exposed to death intimately during the middle ages.
Today we think of death as something separate from our own experience, but this wasn’t the case in the 16th through 19th centuries. Thanks to the rampant war, disease, and poor health practices, death was an everyday part of life.
While we no longer have a close relationship with death in our modern society, that doesn’t mean we can’t take matters into our own hands. Start end-of-life planning to consider your own legacy. While there’s unlikely to be a chime marking our own demise, that doesn’t mean you can’t still leave a powerful mark on the world.
- “Abbey Bells: History.” Westminster Abbey. Westminster-Abbey.org.
- Apple, R. W. Jr. “Across the Kingdom, Britons Knell the Death of Their Princess With Silence.” NY Times Archives. 7 September 1997. NYtimes.com.
- The Churchman’s Companion. Joseph Masters: page 471. Vol. III. Books.Google.com.
- “Knell.” Merriam Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster.com.
- Timbs, John. Things Not Generally Known. Lockwood & Company: page 196. London: 1867. Books.Google.com.
- Walters, Henry Beauchamp. Church Bells of England. University of California Libraries: page 157. Archive.org.