In medieval times, the death knell was born. It was a tolling of bells at the time someone died for the purpose of chasing away evil spirits. Over the years, the practice continued as a town notice. Traditionally, the bell would toll six times if a woman died or nine times if a man died, followed by the number of years since birth.
Imagine for a moment the cacophony if we announced death this way in modern times. Much more during pandemic.
I think John Donne may have had it right. You can read his full sermon here, but I’ll extract bits.
Yes, I said sermon. I think Mr. Donne never dreamed his words would be hacked up and forced to exist as a poem.
He wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, meditation XVII, in 1624 when afflicted with spotted fever. The sermon is entitled, “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, thou must die.”
The sermon begins:
“Perchance he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”
Mr. Donne writes of catholicism and protestantism in England at a time of unrest. He writes of the biblical principle of the interconnectedness of humankind. That we are all one body, as it were. He writes while terribly ill. He writes these familiar words for which few remember the man:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Imagine if every person took the view that every death diminished themselves. How much would change? How easily could we make available access to care? How readily could we employ palliative care? How freeing would it be to wear a mask, if wearing one prevented even a single diminishing death?
What would you do if you were, as Mr. Donne wrote, involved with mankind? What would I?
Since Covid-19 began, three members of my extended family have died. One from Covid-19. One from old age. One from aggressive cancer. I have attended no funerals and visited no homes.
I come from a funeral people. My grandmother took me to funerals for community people I didn’t even know. It was a matter of honoring the dead and comforting the living. There were potluck meals, cakes and pies delivered to houses, and visitation at the local funeral home. All the more within our sprawling family. And then my father became a funeral director when I was a teen.
I am, you might say, acquainted with death.
And while the death knell was not a part of my growing up, it feels a part of my growing older.
My uncle died yesterday. The bells ought to have tolled. As I’ve arranged these sentences, someone’s someone died. The bells ought to have tolled. My ears itch for the tolling, the recognition, the brutally inconvenient truth of loss.
That’s the number of Covid-19 related deaths to date. It’s a number that does not account for the aged, those afflicted with any other malady, preventable incidents, or malicious acts.
And the bells don’t toll.
The cash registers ring. The politicians scream. The thermometer sounds its all-clear.
But maybe if we heard the bells, even one ring for each life lost, it would change our behaviors and attitudes. Maybe if the bells made it impossible to ignore the death so many have endured and others still freshly grieve, maybe we would shore up our continent, our main. Maybe bells would remind us that we are involved with mankind.
And maybe no one would ask for whom the bells toll, because we’d feel a bit of ourselves slip away as the bells spoke to us.