7. "Sounding out Death”, and Death and the Sense of Sound

Religion, Death and the Senses - Christina Welch

Suzi Garrod [+-]
Next Steps for Living, Dying, Grieving
Suzi Garrod is a holistic health practitioner and trainer whose work includes supporting people who are experiencing life-limiting illness, bereavement, grief and loss. Trained as a Death Doula, she also has an MA in Death, Religion and Culture and co-authored a chapter on religion and the sense of touch in relation to her death doula work, for the Religion and Touch edited book (Welch and Whitehead, 2021).
Christina Welch [+-]
University of Winchester
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Dr Christina Welch is a Reader in Religious Studies at the University of Winchester. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with research interests in the relationship between religions and material and visual culture, notably in relation to death; her research into Northern European erotic death art, and British and Irish cadaver sculptures speaks to this. She gained her PhD in 2005 exploring the role of popular visual representation in the construction of North American Indian and Western Alternative Spiritual identities, and has continued to explore issues around indigeneity and identity construction, most recently writing about the Garifuna of St Vincent. Over the past 14 years Christina has led the Masters degree in Death, Religion and Culture, teaching many death professionals from as funeral directors and death doulas, to embalmers and palliative are leads, as well as people just interested in death as a subject of academic study.


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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Garrod, Suzi; Welch, Christina. 7. "Sounding out Death”, and Death and the Sense of Sound. Religion, Death and the Senses. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Oct 2024. ISBN 9781800504943. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=43880. Date accessed: 04 Dec 2023 doi: 10.1558/equinox.43880. Oct 2024

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