A pallbearer is someone who escorts the coffin at a funeral and (if there is one) at a burial, too. They’ll either carry the coffin, move it along on a wheeled trolley called a bier, or walk with it as other people move it.
Anyone who can do those things can be a pallbearer — so they might be someone who was close to the person who died, or a professional pallbearer. It’s seen as an act of love, respect and protection for the person who has died, so pallbearers are expected to carry out their duties in a way that the person would have liked.
There are no rules about who can be a pallbearer
They can can be of all ages, genders and abilities
Traditionally, pallbearers would carry the coffin on their shoulders. But these days it’s more common to carry it at waist height, push it along on a bier, or walk beside it as other people escort it.
Pallbearers can also decide amongst themselves (and with the funeral director) what they think they’ll be able to manage. So you don’t necessarily have to have a certain amount of strength or physical ability to take on the role.
But it might be worth thinking about whether you’ll be able to cope with it emotionally.
A pallbearer might be someone who was close to the person who died
Like a family member or friend. The person who died might have asked them in advance, or the person organising the funeral might think they’re a good choice.
It can mean a lot to the people at the funeral to see someone who was important to their loved one escorting the coffin.
Or they might be a professional pallbearer
There will usually be four to six pallbearers at a funeral, depending on the weight of the coffin. A funeral director will usually be able to provide as many as you need to make up the right number for the coffin.
If the coffin is particularly heavy, or the person who’s planned the funeral wants a greater sense of ceremony, the funeral director should usually be able to provide extra pallbearers for that, too.
There’s also a role known as an ‘honorary pallbearer’
It’s a way of acknowledging somebody who was very important to the person who died or their loved one, without them having to carry the coffin. They will often follow the coffin in the procession, or escort the coffin if it’s being wheeled into the funeral on a bier.
You don’t have to be a pallbearer if you don’t want to be
Some people might feel like they won’t be able to physically cope with carrying the coffin (if that’s what they’ve been asked to do). And other people feel like the role will be too emotionally overwhelming.
If you feel like this, or you don’t want to be a pallbearer for any other reason, you don’t have to accept. You can politely tell the person who has asked you that you don’t want to do it, and explain your reasons.
But, because being a pallbearer is considered an honour, you might want to thank them for the invitation, and make it clear that you’re flattered they thought of you.
The word ‘pallbearer’ has its origins in ancient Rome
When someone died in ancient Rome, the family would carry the coffin from the family home to the cemetery, and would drape the person’s cloak or ‘pallium’ over the coffin. By the Middle ages, the pallium had been replaced by a large cloth called a ‘pall’.
Pallbearers were originally only responsible for holding the corners of the cloth, while coffin bearers would carry the coffin. Today, pallbearers carry or escort the coffin. Sometimes there is a pall or flag covering the coffin, too, but this is more common at state and military funerals.
Here’s what you’ll do on the day, if you’re a pallbearer
Your main duty will be either carrying the coffin, or pushing it along on a small trolley called a wheeled bier. Exactly where and for how long you’ll need to carry or escort the coffin will vary depending on the funeral arrangements.
And there will also be a few other things you’ll need to do as part of the process. Here’s a rundown of exactly what will happen on the day:
You’ll arrive at the funeral a little early That’s so that the funeral director can explain what will happen when, where you’ll need to walk, how to carry or wheel the coffin (if you’ll be doing that), and your position in relation to the other pallbearers.
The coffin will arrive at the funeral venue The funeral directors will have organised this as part of their work. You’ll usually be asked to stand at the back of the funeral car in silence, facing forward.
You’ll keep your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms down in front of your body, with one hand on top of the other. You’ll wait here until the service is about to start.
You might get the coffin out of the funeral car, then you’ll start carrying or escorting it You can carry a coffin at waist height, using the handles on its side. Or you can carry it on your shoulder. This is a more traditional method called ‘shouldering’. You can read more about exactly how to carry a coffin.
If you’re escorting a coffin on a wheeled bier, you’ll hold the handle on the side of the coffin and guide it on its way. You should stay silent until you’ve finished moving the coffin.
You’ll put the coffin where it needs to be, which will vary depending on the type of funeral At a cremation, you’ll take it into the crematorium and put it onto a stand called a catafalque. At a burial, you’ll take it to the front of the venue and either put it onto wooden trestles or a wheeled bier. If you’re escorting the coffin on a bier, you wheel it into place.
As you walk into the venue, the people who’ve come to the funeral will usually stand, and they might bow their heads as you pass, as a sign of respect to the person who’s died.
Once you’ve finished moving the coffin, you’ll bow your heads for four seconds The funeral director will signal for you to do this, then you’ll take your seat. The pallbearers might all have assigned seats next to each other, or your loved ones can save you a seat with them.
You might need to transport the coffin again after the service If your loved one is being cremated and this is happening somewhere else, you’ll need to take the coffin back to the funeral car, and then you might be needed at the other end to take the coffin to the right spot for cremation.
If your loved one is having a burial, you’ll need to take the coffin to the grave (if it’s right outside the venue) or back to the funeral car, and then to the grave once you get to the burial site. You’ll then need to help put the coffin onto the lift that lowers it into the ground.
You’ll also be expected to behave in a certain way
As well as carrying or escorting the coffin, there are some etiquette rules you’ll need to follow. You should:
Wear the right kind of clothes — that might mean dressing smartly in black, or wearing something the person who died would have liked, like bright colours. If you’re not sure, ask the person who’s organising the funeral.
Arrive at the funeral slightly early — so the funeral director can run you through what will happen and what you’ll need to do. You should follow their instructions carefully.
Behave in a respectful way — that might include things like walking slowly and steadily, and not talking loudly or laughing.
Carry the coffin with dignity and respect — the funeral director will be able to tell you more about how to do that.
How to plan a funeral
If you’re the one organising your loved one’s funeral, or you’re thinking about planning your own, we’ve written a step-by-step guide on how to arrange a funeral to help you through the process.
Here’s how to carry a coffin properly and safely
Remember: not being able to carry the coffin won’t necessarily rule you out of being a pallbearer. Depending on what the person who died wanted (or what the organiser of the funeral has in mind) you might be able to wheel the coffin on a bier, or walk with it while others carry it.
If you are going to be carrying the coffin, your funeral director will help you do it properly and safely. But here are some tips to help you prepare in the meantime.
Think about everyone’s heights
If you’re carrying a coffin on your shoulders, it’s much easier if all of the pallbearers are around the same height. But if that’s not the case, don’t worry.
Make sure people of similar heights are opposite each other on either side of the coffin, and put shorter people at the front. It can help to have someone beside each person to help get the coffin up onto people’s shoulders.
Carry the person in the coffin feet first
That’s because coffins are top-heavy, especially when you’re moving them downstairs or downhill. So carrying a coffin feet first helps pallbearers to keep everything balanced.
It also means you’re carrying the person in the coffin in the same respectful and careful way you’d carry a living person on a stretcher.
Plan out and practise the route
Again, your funeral director will help you with this, but make sure you’ve planned out a route that’s possible, and walk through it when you arrive at the venue.
That way you’ll be aware of any tricky bits, like slippery ground, steps you might need to carry the coffin down, or places you might need to duck your head.
If you can, keep your free hands looking neat
If you’re carrying the coffin on your shoulders, it’s traditional to keep both hands down by your side once the coffin is in place.
And if you’re carrying the coffin at waist height, or pushing it along on a wheeled bier, then it’s traditional to do this with one hand, and to keep your free hand tucked behind your back.
But if you feel like you need to do something different to carry the coffin safely then don’t worry. It’s more important to keep yourself and the coffin stable, than to follow tradition.
Work as a team
Be aware of your fellow pallbearers, and walk in a way that means you can all keep the coffin close to your body. Choose someone to set the pace, and all walk in step with them.
Remember that your funeral director is there for you
It’s their job to help and reassure you. If you don’t feel able to carry the coffin on the day, they’ll have someone who can step in. If you’re going to be carrying it on your shoulders, they’ll help you lift it up there.
And they’ll also lead you into the venue, so just keep following them and responding to their cues, and you’ll be fine.
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