The ancient custom of ringing a church bell at the actual time of death (the Passing-Bell, or rather the Death Knell) fell into disuse in England by the end of the 18th century. 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.
J C L Stahlschmidt produced comprehensive lists of the practices at each church in Kent and Surrey in his two volumes. Transcriptions of the books have been produced by Robarts – University of Toronto.
The term "death knell" is also used as a metaphor to describe an event or thing that brings about the "death" of another entity, or to signal that the death has taken place.
- Stahlschmidt J.C.L: The Church Bells of Kent: Their inscriptions, founders, uses and traditions, p126. Elliot Stock, 1887.
- Stahlschmidt J.C.L: Surrey Bells and London Bell Founders: A Contribution to the Comparative Study of Bell Inscriptions, p124. Elliot Stock, 1884.
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