Having seen the scans and laboratory reports, Phyllis was not surprised what I told her that day in the hospital. With a sigh she responded, “So I’m dying. Nobody will know and nobody will care.” Her sad words were unfortunately not unique to her nor to our era. Phyllis’ lament reminded me of King David’s words three millennia ago recorded in the Bible during a time David felt abandoned and betrayed: “No one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life” (Psalm 142:4).
Many years ago in Portland church bells would peel when someone died. This custom was revived after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shootings. Church bells around the country including at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke’s on State Street were rung once for each victim as a sign of remembrance. In the case of the Las Vegas shootings, it was a reminder of the deaths of so many in our greater community. The early practice of church bell ringing, now gone from most cities and communities, is a relic of the days of communal life in a village or hamlet, where the joys and sorrows of the individual were commonly shared and the parish church was the center of all activities.
The ringing of church bells when someone died was called “tolling” from the old English word “telling”–telling the community that one of theirs had died. This tolling of bells was immortalized in a poem by the famous writer John Donne in 1624: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of 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 thine own or of thine friend’s were, each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” (“Devotions”–Meditation 17).
Modern life, tending to separateness, has done much to destroy this feeling of kinship and many old customs have been lost in consequence. Today a tolling bell would likely go unheeded in the bellowing din of busy urban life, with few likely stopping for a moment at work or play to consider with a kindly thought a soul passing into eternity.
Should we be touched by the passing of an individual in our community? When asked what were the greatest commandments, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40). Those words spoken 2000 years ago in the present tense were meant not only for long ago but also for today. Because all people are included as neighbors as described by Jesus, we are bound to demonstrate love to them.
Spending the winter in Florida with an older population, I hear the siren of an EMT vehicle responding to someone who has died or is dying several times a week, even waking me up at night. While driving around, I often have to pull over as an EMT vehicle approaches with siren wailing. Is this experience a petty annoyance of daily life or a wake-up call to be engaged to what is happening to others around us?
The siren cry of the EMT vehicle may be the tolling bell of today, alerting us that someone in our community is in distress or has died. If you hear today’s “tolling bell” of an EMT vehicle in the next several months, it could be that the EMT vehicle has been summoned to the home of my patient whose prognosis is grave. Would you please remember Phyllis when you hear the siren? Can I tell her someone will know and someone will care?