Buried Alive, with Bells

Happy Halloween! Bells have a sinister side, too, you know. As my colleague Tiffany Ng has argued in her doctoral dissertation, in cultural representations bells have been associated with utopias and dystopias—death, decay, and all the rest of it.

And we don’t even have to look at cultural representations—we can just look at the macabre security coffin from Europe.*



Fear of being buried alive has been common since time immemorial. By the 19th century, western science still hadn’t quite honed in on the notion that death was confirmed by a stopped heartbeat, and anecdotes abounded of the dead coming back to life days after their supposed death. What to do? One gross solution was to store bodies in a Leichenhäuser, a waiting mortuary, for a time until they had decomposed enough to ensure that they were really, truly dead. That place must have stunk to high heaven for a mile around. Another solution was to rig up your coffin to a bell above ground, so that the bell would ring should the poor person awake while in the grave. Yes, you read that right—bells to alarm those above ground that the buried is still alive.

There were different mechanisms to ring the bell. Some required intelligent motion, by pulling on a string, for example. Others were activated by the mere slightest movement of the chest and arms, should the person not have the strength to even pull a string.

Bells in this case signaled life—actually, resurrection! Bells toll to mark the death of a Christian, and here bells have the duty to announce the person’s earthly life again. These patented coffins never made deep inroads in the funeral market, but that’s probably for the best. It turns out that the bloating of a decomposing body would have been enough to trigger the bell in the security coffin detecting slight movements in the chest and arms. Just imagine hearing a bell at a graveyard, frantically digging down to the coffin to release the desperate person inside, perhaps with the family nearby…only to find a putrefied body. Gruesome, to say the least. Hearing the bell at the graveside, after a few incidents like this, one wouldn’t be sure if it signaled death or life.

* Information on security coffins taken from Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Plainfield United Methodist Church, Plainfield, IL

In the community of Plainfield, IL, just outside of Chicago, the Plainfield United Methodist Church expanded their historic chime into the fine carillon it is today.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit this carillon a few times—to play and listen.

Plainfield United Methodist Church

Larry Stephens, parishioner and major donor for the instrument expansion, kindly showed us the instrument and allowed me and my colleague to play. The carillon numbers 23 bells—just reaching the minimum number of bells for a carillon—and for that reason it does not have a pedal board.

Plainfield United Methodist Church

The first ten bells date all the way back to 1906 from Meneely of Watervliet. In 2007, Eijsbouts cast eight more matching bells to bring the total up to 2007. Then in 2014, five more bells were added to reach 23. At this time, an electro-pneumatic auto-play feature was added. In the picture below, you can see the contrast between the old and new bells (not shiny vs. shiny).

Plainfield United Methodist Church

In August 2016, my colleagues and I came back to hear the special carillon recital of Ellen Dickinson on a perfect summer evening. Ellen played the bells beautifully. Her secret for making her arrangements sound full and vibrant, it seems, was to use handbell arrangements as a starting point for her carillon arrangements. The ice cream helped in making the evening enjoyable too.

Thank you, Larry, for introducing us to Plainfield United Methodist Church’s carillon!

Plainfield Methodist Church carillon concert

St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, IL

Dear readers: I am so remiss in not reporting on an important set of Chicago bells that it is downright embarrassing. And it is also embarrassing that I haven’t posted for a while on this blog. My apologies on both counts.

The bells I should have written about months and months ago are those in the carillon of St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. I play on this carillon regularly! Naturally, I am well acquainted with the instrument and the fine folks at the church that have welcomed me into their congregation.

St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church

These 43 bells are true gems. They are Gillett & Johnston bells cast in 1926 and have a remarkable rich tone. The carillon still has the original keyboard from its installation in 1927—a European standard (not many of those in North America, and if not exactly a European standard, very close to it). No excuse for being unprepared for those European carillon concerts now.

St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church
St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church

The carillon was donated by Richard T. Crane, Jr. in memory of his father, who made his fortune in Chicago manufacturing metal products for plumbing and heating systems.

I’ve had the great pleasure to play there on Sundays and for weddings and funerals for over a year now. Richard Hoskins, the music director, graciously allowed me to play as a guest a couple of years ago, and with the growth in interest and enthusiasm in the carillon, the sound of bells has now become a regular part of the church’s musical soundscape. My friend and colleague, Jim Fackenthal, also plays the carillon here regularly.

In August 2016, we were very pleased to host Mathieu Polak from the Netherlands in concert. Despite the persistent rain, we had a great turnout of enthusiasts who enjoyed ice cream with the music. Marvelous performance, Mathieu!

The carillon is in great hands with this staff and congregation. The church community greatly values extraordinary music in worship and concert, as their Sunday services and secular concerts attest to. The carillon will continue to add to its already stellar music and community scene.


The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire II

Thanks, B.D., for passing along these dramatic details about the Great Chicago Fire and the courthouse bell!

Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, explains the particulars. He does it so well, no need for me to paraphrase.

Note the name of the watchman/bell ringer! Schaffer! I am no stranger to the feeling he must have had during the blazing fire “If you would have just listened to me, we wouldn’t have gotten in this mess!” [The second time, of course, after correcting the initial mistake.] Maybe that sentiment runs in the family.

In the summer of 1871 the city had just finished installing a new network of fire-alarm boxes. These automatic signal devices were supposed to be simple to operate and completely reliable. “One pull at a hook,” said a fire official, “gives the signal with unerring accuracy.” To prevent people from turning in false alarms, the 172 numbered boxes were locked, the keys entrusted to responsible citizens in nearby residences and businesses.

This up-to-date electrical system was supplemented by a medieval-like fire watch. A watchman was on duty around the clock on the high cupola of the “fireproof” courthouse, and each fire station had its own observation tower. When a fire was sighted and reported to the central-alarm-system operator at the courthouse, he set the eleven-thousand-pound courthouse bell tolling with an electrical apparatus and sent a signal identifying the fire box closest to the blaze to all the engine companies in the city.

Around 9:00 p.m., October 8, the watchman Matthias Schafer, on duty in the courthouse tower, saw flames on the West Side of the city through the screen of smoke created by the coal fires along the river. Looking through his spyglass, he located the fire near Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street and called down through a voicebox to William J. Brown, night operator at the central-fire-alarm telegraph office on the first floor of the courthouse, to strike box 342. Within seconds, the courthouse bell began booming its alarm over the sleeping city, and hose companies set out for Halsted Street.

As Schaffer continued to watch the fire, however, he realized that he had mislocated it by a mile or so and told Brown to strike the correct box, number 319. Brown refused, claiming that this might confuse the fire companies and that they would pass the fire, anyway, on their way to box 342. William Brown’s stupid blunder helped doom Chicago.

St. Paul & the Redeemer Church, Chicago, IL

Well, turns out I was wrong. There is another church in Hyde Park (ok, bordering Hyde Park in nearby Kenwood) with a real, honest-to-goodness bell! St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal Church has one rung on Sunday mornings and for special services. The Rev. Peter Lane showed me and my bell colleague Jim Fackenthal the bell one rainy summer morning.

St. Paul & the Redeemer bell

It’s a lovely Meneely Watervliet bell cast in 1923 with an inscription that reads “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Not sure if a donor or sponsor was involved.

At one time the bell must have been rung with a rope, since you can see the wheel on the side of the bell that would have swung it back and forth. We even found the old swinging clapper on the floor. These days, it’s rung by a clapper held close to the bell wall, controlled by computer down in the sanctuary.

This tower gets bonus points for creative entrance. It requires a ladder on the outside of the tower to access the door off the roof!


Thank you, Peter, for showing us your bell!

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL

Does this church look familiar? It might, if you’ve ever visited Chicago. The Fourth Presbyterian Church resides on some prime real estate–it’s located on the Magnificent Mile across the street from the John Hancock Center. Consumerism on one side, Christianity on the other.

The bells at Fourth Presbyterian ring on the full and half hours from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. on weekdays and for ten minutes at noon and 5 p.m. They also peal twenty minutes before services on Sunday morning and for funerals and weddings. With all the pedestrians in the area, I would wager that these are some of the most heard bells in Chicago, right up there with the digital bells of the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.

What are these bells? Digital Schulmerich bells, dating from the early 2000s. John Sherer, organist and director of music, gave me the rundown. The church was built in 1914, but the tower was not strong enough to house real bells (sadly, a tale for many North American churches. Towers that could hold the weight of bells but not withstand the force of swinging them had chimes installed.)

In the 1950s, the first Schulmerich bell system was installed. It lasted until the early 2000s and was replaced by the spiffy current digital bell system in use today. It’s not automated music all the time, though. The digital bells can be played from two manual keyboards too.

Take a listen when you’re in the area doing some shopping!

Fourth Presbyterian Church Plaque

Photo of Church attributed to CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104399