This Wikipedia article on the ringing and tolling of church bells says:
Ringing them occurs in three basic ways: normal ringing, chiming, or tolling. Normal ringing refers to the ringing of a bell or bells at a rate of about one ring per second or more, often in pairs reflecting the traditional “ding-dong” sound of a bell which is rotated back and forth, ringing once in each direction. “Chiming” a bell refers to a single ring, used to mark the naming of a person when they are baptized, confirmed, or at other times. Many Lutheran churches chime the bell three times as the congregation speaks the Lord’s Prayer, once at the beginning, once near the middle, and once at the “Amen”. “Tolling” a bell refers to the slow ringing of a bell, perhaps once every four to ten seconds. It is this type of ringing that is most often associated with a death, the slow pace broadcasting a feeling of sadness as opposed to the jubilance and liveliness of quicker ringing.
Customs vary regarding when and for how long the bell tolls at a funeral. One custom observed in some liturgical churches is to toll the bell once for each year of the life of the deceased. Another way to tell the age of the deceased is by tolling the bell in a pattern. For example if the deceased was 75 years old, the bell is tolled seven times for seventy, and then after a pause it is tolled five more times to show the five.
At Concordia Lutheran Church in Hood River, the bell is rung before church every Sunday, but we do not observe the custom of chiming. On the other hand, we do toll for funerals and on Good Friday. Those who can recognize a tolling bell might easily wonder who has died: “For whom is that bell tolling?”
A tolling bell is only one example of the way a church bell communicates to the community. I realize that some community members may think a church bell to be a nuisance, because they would rather continue sleeping (or whatever they are doing) unmolested. Yet the very purpose of having a church bell is to help rouse our earthly neighbors from their slumber of doubt and unbelief to find the immortality that God has prepared for them through Jesus Christ alone. Many of them should find it a nuisance, since they do not wish to have any reminders of their sins and mortality.
Since the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary included the hymn “Wilt Thou Forgive that Sin,” a poem by John Donne, I have been more interested in Donne’s works. I find them devotional and provocative in the best possible way. Today, a passing reference on Cyberbrethren reminded me of a certain test-taking time in college, and connected it with John Donne. I had taken my seat, expecting a rigorous test, and the bell rang as the professor began passing it out. I said something about the bell tolling, and he said (as if quoting): “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” Ominous, if you understand the whole tolling thing.
A little digging on this wonderful Internet has turned up a fuller context of that quote. It’s not really from a poem, though some consider it so. Rather, it’s from a meditation by John Donne, in which he would have the reader consider his connection with all of Christendom in the body of Christ. Every time the church bell tolls, it marks the passage of one of our members into eternity, and so every toll is personally relevant to each Christian. In a similar way, every human being is connected with every other, so that we should recognize that the humanity we share with those who die means that we also participate somehow in all those deaths.
Another point of interest about this meditation is Donne’s now-familiar statement “No man is an island.” It’s good finally to know the original context of those words, and see how the author put the metaphor to a salutary use.
Here is the text of the meditation:
PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as 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. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?
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, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.