The GCSE Religious Education syllabus includes a module on life and death, which is how this morning the Year 10 lesson was about funerals. Talking to the class about the elements of a Christian funeral, I realised I could not convey to them the chilling nature of some of the moments. There seems no moment more chilling than the single strike of a church bell, but how would one convey that feeling to a group of fifteen year olds?
The tolling of a single bell is a sound of grief. A single strike and a lengthy pause before the next as mourners file into church. There is in the sound a sense of finality, a sense of one’s mortality.
The toll of the bell always finds strange resonances deep within the memory. Echoes from childhood are heard at unexpected moments, snatches of verse, half sentences. “I”, said the fly, “with my little eye”. I hated that poem.
Why did school children in the 1960s get taught Who killed Cock Robin? It’s of dubious historical origin, little literary merit, and there must have been not a few children who found it disturbing.
“Who killed Cock Robin?” “I,” said the sparrow,
“with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.”
“Who saw him die?” “I,” said the fly,
“with my little eye, I saw him die.”
“Who caught his blood?” “I,” said the fish,
“with my little dish, I caught his blood.”
“Who’ll make the shroud?” “I,” said the beetle,
“with my thread and needle, I’ll make the shroud.”
“Who’ll dig his grave?” “I,” said the owl,
“with my pick and shovel, I’ll dig his grave.”
“Who’ll be the parson?” “I,” said the rook,
“with my little book, I’ll be the parson.”
“Who’ll be the clerk?” “I,” said the lark,
“if it’s not in the dark, I’ll be the clerk.”
“Who’ll carry the link?” “I,” said the linnet,
“I’ll fetch it in a minute, I’ll carry the link.”
“Who’ll be chief mourner?” “I,” said the dove,
“I mourn for my love, I’ll be chief mourner.”
“Who’ll carry the coffin?” “I,” said the kite,
“if it’s not through the night, I’ll carry the coffin.”
“Who’ll bear the pall? “We,” said the wren,
“both the cock and the hen, we’ll bear the pall.”
“Who’ll sing a psalm?” “I,” said the thrush,
“as she sat on a bush, I’ll sing a psalm.”
“Who’ll toll the bell?” “I,” said the bull,
“because I can pull, I’ll toll the bell.”
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.
The sound of the bell always brings the words to mind, “I”, said the bull, because I can pull.” The chilling memories of childhood fear come to mind. The Year 10 class would have been mystified.