Muffled Bells at the National Cathedral

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The life of former President Gerald Ford will be celebrated at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Muffled bells at the towering "urban mountain" will mourn his death and mark his life.


The New Year here in Washington will begin with the funeral for the former president, and I and my neighbors will have a special perspective on the service for President Ford at Washington National Cathedral. I live just two short blocks from the cathedral. It dominates my view and its bells divide my days into hours when I'm at home.

It seems to me a privilege to live within the sound of cathedral bells, and a special privilege to live within sight of the cathedral. It's one of the largest gothic cathedrals in the world. Built a bit downhill from my neighborhood, it's so immense that it towers over us.

My friend Mary Gant said one day that it is like an urban mountain. We look at it every day to see what the day is like. The cathedral washed in pink as the sun rises, the cathedral framed by my neighbor's pear trees blooming in the spring, the cathedral with all its gargoyles and gothic traceries picked out by snow. The days when fog hides it from even its closest neighbors, as it did this morning.

On the day of the funeral, when the procession leaves the Capitol, where the former president's body has been lying in state, one of the biggest bells in the cathedral's tower will begin to toll. It will ring very slowly - perhaps one ring a minute. As the funeral procession moves through the city, the bell will toll 38 times for the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford.

The big bell will ring for the 38th time as the funeral procession enters the cathedral grounds. After the service, as mourners move out onto the grounds, the cathedral's bell ringers plan a quarter peal of muffled bells, which will last for about an hour.

They put leather covers over half the clapper of each bell to soften the strike and signal that this is a somber and important occasion. The bells are rung with long ropes, pulled to make the bells ring in turn. Most of the time it's a crashing, joyous noise. On Tuesday, the muffled bells will sound very different from that.

There are lots of funerals at the cathedral, generally for people who've played some sort of significant role in our national life. So I've heard the tolling before. It's a huge sound, not amplified at all. Just the noise of a big, big bronze bell rolling over the neighborhood.

I always find myself stopping to count as the bell begins to ring. On Tuesday, I will listen to the president's funeral on the radio, maybe sneak a peek at TV. But I will also step out on my back porch and listen to the bells, mourning his death and marking his life.

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