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Bells accompany many of the great events in life. “We ring with joyous gladness when man and wife are blessed. We peal in muffled sadness for loved ones laid to rest”. The words are from A&M(R) 496, the best known ringers’ hymn.
I was reminded of it by Monica Parson’s article in the Wokingham Times about our attitudes to death. The hymn does not mention death, but uses one of many euphemisms. It only mentions sadness and it talks of muffled bells.
In fact, bells are rarely rung fully muffled, but half muffled. A leather pad is fastened to one side of the clapper so that alternate strokes of the bell are loud and soft. The effect when all the bells ring is of a bright change followed by a softer echo. Half muffled ringing always has an association with death, usually at funerals and on remembrance day. This is a pity as many of us find the effect beautiful in its own right.
We ring much less often for funerals than weddings, (which sometimes seem like a production line, and of course normally happen on Saturday when ringers are more available) but when we do the norm is to ring half muffled. It fits very well with the quiet, sombre, mood of a funeral. This assumption of sombreness is what I think Monica was questioning.
It is interesting that over recent years some people, often ringers, have specifically stated the wish that the bells be rung open at their funeral. From a ringer, this could perhaps be a last act of defiance against anyone who has complained about bells during his or her lifetime, but it is in any case, more in the spirit of thanksgiving for a long, rich and rewarding life.
Perhaps our attitudes to death are beginning to change in spite of the institutionalisation which normally hides from most of us what was in times gone by a natural part of the cycle of life in the extended family.
I have noticed another interesting difference, also related to ringing for death, though I suspect it is geographical, or at least episcopal in origin. When I learnt to ring, we considered it quite normal to ring half muffled for services on Good Friday morning. In fact we would have found it odd not to mark a significant event in the Church’s year in an appropriate way, and half muffled ringing seemed very appropriate. The bells then remained silent until Easter morning, although the choir normally performed The Crucifixion or a similar oratorio on Good Friday evening.
Over a decade passed before I started actively ringing in this Diocese (which is in a different Archbishopric). The tradition I found here was not to ring during Holy Week at all. It all seemed rather unusual. Why should the Church not want to remind the outside world that something special was happening? Isn't that an important role for the bells in our secular age?
John Harrison (May 1989)
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