Death knell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

A death knell is the ringing of a bell to announce a death. This is also called tolling the bell.

English tradition[edit]

In England, an ancient custom was the ringing a church bell at the actual time of death[1] (the Passing-Bell, or rather the Death Knell). It was regulated by statutes in the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I,[2][3] and fell into disuse by the end of the 18th century. Sometimes the bell was first rung when the person was still dying.[4] J C L Stahlschmidt produced comprehensive lists of the practices at each church in Kent and Surrey in his two volumes o the bells of those counties.[5][6] More customary at the end of the 19th century was to ring the Death Knell as soon as notice reached the clerk of the church or sexton, unless the sun had set, in which case it was rung at an early hour the following morning.

It was usual to repeat the knell early on the morning of the day when the funeral took place; but although canon law permitted tolling after the funeral there does not seem to be any record that this was practiced.


The manner of ringing the knell varied in different parishes. Occasionally the age of the departed was signified by the number of chimes (or strokes) of the bell, but the use of "tellers" to denote the sex was almost universal, and by far the greater number of churches in the counties of Kent and Surrey used the customary number of tellers, viz., three times three strokes for a man and three times two for a woman, with a varying use for children across the counties. The word "tellers" became changed into "Tailors", and the crime thriller The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers gives a good description of the tradition.

Half-muffled bells[edit]

A more modern tradition where there are full-circle bells is to use "half-muffles" when sounding one bell as a tolled bell, or all the bells in change-ringing. This means a leather muffle is placed on the clapper of each bell so that there is a loud "open" strike followed by a muffled strike, which has a very sonorous and mournful effect.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Brand, John; Ellis, Sir Henry; Halliwell-Phillipps, James Orchard (1849-01-01). Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: chiefly illustrating the origin of our vulgar and provincial customs, ceremonies, and superstitions. Bohn. 
  2. ^ "The passing bell". Things Not Generally Known: Familiarly Explained. Lockwood & Company. 1867. 
  3. ^ "Correspondence - answers: The passing bell". The Churchman's companion. 1868. 
  4. ^ Timbs, John (1863). Mysteries of life, death, and futurity:illustrated from the best and latest authorities. New York,. 
  5. ^ Stahlschmidt J.C.L: The Church Bells of Kent: Their inscriptions, founders, uses and traditions, p126. Elliot Stock, 1887.
  6. ^ Stahlschmidt J.C.L: Surrey Bells and London Bell Founders: A Contribution to the Comparative Study of Bell Inscriptions, p124. Elliot Stock, 1884.