No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell
Sonnets 71 by William Shakespeare
Meaning of Bell on a Headstone
Bells have a special place in church life, and in the church itself, as they occupy the space between heaven and earth. There is a Catholic blessing for new bells that needs to be carried out by at least a Bishop. In it the bell is given the power to protect those who hear it, repel storms and banish evil.
…that at the sound of this bell their faith and devotion may be increased, that the snares of the Evil One may be in effectual, that the elements may be calmed, that the air may be healthful, that the demons may flee when they hear the sweet tones of the bell.
The externals of the Catholic church : her government, ceremonies, festivals, sacramentals, and devotions by John F. Sullivan
There was superstition that evil spirits would gather around a dying person, trying to catch the departing soul. To give the soul a chance of ascending to heaven, church bells were rung at the time of death to frighten away these demonic forces. It was even added to the rules of the early Church of England that:
…when any is passing out of this Life, a Bell shall be Tolled, and the Minister shall not then slack to do his last Duty. And after the Parties Death (if it so fall out) there shall be rung no more than one short Peal, and one other before the Burial, and one other after the Burial.
Church of England Canon law; 1604
The Passing Bell
The first ringing to indicate an impending death was called the “Passing Bell“. This was to alert the priest that he was needed to perform the Last Rights.
The Death Knell
A “Death Knell” was rung immediately after the death. This was a slow solemn peal and each strike or teller identified the sex and age of the deceased. In small communities they would know from this who had passed and who’s souls to pray for.
From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.
Old Church Lore by William Andrews
Lych or Corpse Bell
The last bell, the Lych or Corpse bell would be rang at the funeral, and is the only one that survives today.
In Scotland traditionally they used a hand held deid bell that was rung through the streets informing of recent deaths and funeral details. They also rang the bell at the head of funeral procession to the church.
Bells are included on headstones especially in the North of England and Scotland as part of Memento Mori symbols. As John Donne reminds us:
never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne