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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 7. 'Sounding out Death’: Academic and Professional Viewpoints

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43880


Drawing on Douglas Davies’ theory of ‘words against death’ (2017) and Dr Monika Renz’ research into the auditive sensitivity of the dying (2015) this chapter explores the significance of sound, and the sense of hearing, in relation to death. It considers how words and sounds embedded within traditional death rituals bring comfort to both the dying and the mourning. Prayers, blessings, invocations, chants, hymns, and eulogies exemplify such vocalised ritual responses to death, all of which occur in some form across every human culture and religion. The sound of mournful crying, and the practice of keening, or wailing are powerful and emotional cross-cultural expressions of grief which universally communicate death without the accompaniment of liturgical music or words. Sounds associated with death can bring both comfort and distress to those who hear them. The final messages, voices and intonations, of loved ones can soothe those who lie ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner, 1969:95) the threshold of life and death. Clinical studies have shown that hearing may be the last sense to function at end of life and that even when unconscious, the dying respond to different sounds, tones, and rhythms (Blundon, Gallagher, Ward, 2020:1). Conversely the gurgling sound of the ‘death rattle’ in the latter stages of dying, can be extremely distressing for relatives to hear. Finally, this chapter touches upon mythology relating to the sounds of nature as omens of impending death, such as the squeaking sound emitted by the hawk moth, the sound of a cricket chirping in a house, or the tapping of the death watch beetle (Cherry, 2011).

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