“If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share.”

  • W. Clement Stone

It’s been a somber time for Kraig Milam.

You see, the New Albany, Ind., farrier recently lost John Mills, a dear friend and fellow farrier after a lengthy illness, and Milam wanted to honor him.

“Are you familiar with ringing out ceremonies for farriers?” came the question.

American Farriers Journal receives phone calls and emails from time to time asking similar questions. Sometimes we know the answer, other times we don’t. If we don’t know, though, we’ll do our level best to find out.

Milam already had reached out to some knowledgeable and well-known farriers — the Butler family of Crawford, Neb.; Jim Poor of Midland, Texas; and Danvers Child of Lafayette, Ind. He was able to piece together some information.

At some point during the service, Milam learned, someone lightly strikes the anvil in honor of the departed farrier.

Death knells and funeral tolls were widely practiced in the Middle Ages when certain objects such as bells were believed to have had special powers. The Catholic Church condoned the use of bells to ward off evil spirits. In particular, the death knell was rung to encourage Christian prayers for the soul of the deceased, and to frighten away the evil spirits that stood at the foot of the departed’s bed and around the house.

As it relates to farriers, questions remained for Milam. Are there a specific number of tolls? When does the ringing of the anvil take place?

“We just want to make sure we do it right,” Milam said. “If there’s a tradition, we’d like to honor it.”

Milam was assured that we’d do our best to learn more. Neither of us were disappointed after three more well respected farriers were brought in — Jim Keith of Tucumcari, N.M.; Tom Willoughby of Crown Point, Ind.; and Bob Smith of Plymouth, Calif.

While researching the topic, American Farriers Journal found customs of when and for how long bells are tolled at a funeral.

Some liturgical churches toll the bell once for each year of the departed’s life. Another manner of tolling the bell is based upon a pattern. If the deceased was 85 years old, the bell is tolled eight times to represent 80. A pause follows, then the bell is tolled another five times to represent the 5 years.

Keith and Smith found similarities in ceremonies for farriers and blacksmiths, with the distinct difference being the substitution of an anvil.

“In my limited experience, ‘ringing the anvil’ was done as a moment of silence,” Keith says, “punctuated by light strikes on the anvil.”

Smith has attended many funerals with his wife Dorothy Stiegler — a past president of the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America (ABANA) — in which the ringing of the anvil has been performed.

Stiegler was among a collection of blacksmiths who started a tradition of anvil ringing nearly 20 years ago to honor the renowned master Francis Whitaker at his funeral.

“Following the ringing of the anvil (signifying the master calling the apprentices), everyone who wished to, came forward and struck the anvil three times in like manner; the procession was long and joyous,” Stiegler wrote November 1999 issue of Anvil Magazine. “We rang the anvil 92 times in remembrance of his 92 years. Many of the folks attending rang a number for themselves and for friends who could not attend.”

While Whitaker was honored in this manner, there’s no set tradition or variance.

“There are no differences between farrier or blacksmith ceremonies; we are all smiths,” Smith says. “Rather, it’s a very reverent paying respect to a passing friend. Each person files by while taking the hammer from the previous mourner and taps the horn once in a light, reverent and respectful manner. Unless there are hundreds in attendance, it’s nice to let the ring dissipate a little before the next tap. It’s a little like getting together to do a little smithing with the departed one last time. It’s very moving.”

The willingness to share their anvil ringing experiences and knowledge was greatly appreciated by Milam.

“It’s truly amazing,” he says, “that so many of the biggest names in this industry were willing to help bring this together.”

It’s what you do when you’re thankful.

Read about Kentucky farrier John Mills’ funeral in Stan Marshall’s blog.