Being asked to be a pallbearer at a funeral is considered an honour. While it is an honour it can also be a difficult time if you’re asked to be a pallbearer, particularly if you were very close to the deceased.
A funeral is a time of grief and in these situations people often look for symbols of authority and responsibility. Being a pallbearer personifies this role, and you’ll probably be looked upon to help with a number of duties before and after the service.
That you’ve been asked also represents that you’re seen as support to the immediate family too.
In general, the funeral director will show you what to do and where you need to be. But the following are fairly typical of a pallbearer’s responsibilities:
- Transporting the coffin to the graveside, into the church or into the crematorium
- Taking the floral tributes
- Directing mourners
- Helping with directions to the wake
- Thanking mourners for attending as they leave the service
If it’s an open coffin you might be asked to witness the closing of the coffin.
The duties differ slightly depending if it’s a burial or cremation.
At a cremation you’ll help move the coffin from the hearse to the crematorium. Pallbearers carry the coffin on their shoulder or by the handles. Sometimes they are wheeled in on a trolley.
At a burial there’s usually a service in the church first and the pallbearers will transport the coffin from the hearse into the church for the service then from the hearse to the burial site once it’s been driven to the burial site.
Pallbearers also lower the coffin into the grave.
The Significance of Being a Pallbearer at a Funeral Service
A pall is a heavy cloth that is draped over a coffin. In Roman times the pallium was the cloak or cape worn by soldiers. In medieval times it was shortened to pall, and Christians started to cover their dead in the pall during burial.
Originally the pallbearer would hold the corner of the cloth as the coffin was moved into the church and has evolved into actually carrying the coffin itself.
It’s considered a great honour to be asked to be a pallbearer, but it can be emotionally difficult too. Some people feel they cannot complete the role properly because they’d be too distressed. Often pallbearers are close family members. Most funeral directors offer pallbearers in their pre paid funeral plans.
A funeral director will be experienced in arranging pallbearers, so if you’re asked don’t worry about the weight being too much.
If you’re not physically able to hold the coffin you can be appointed as an honorary pallbearer and follow alongside the coffin.
Etiquette for Pallbearers
Grief can affect your decision to be a pallbearer. Some believe you need to be a symbol of strength for the family and other mourners. Others say it’s ok to show grief if you were close to the deceased.
You’ll know how you feel about the situation and what the family will expect from you. If you’re too distressed it might be harder to carry the coffin.
Other things to consider:
- Arrive at the funeral early and stay late if the family needs help
- When the hearse arrives you should stand behind it in silence. Avoid talking loudly and laughing is not considered respectful
- Dress more formally than you would if you were attending a funeral
- Pallbearers are expected to bow to the coffin for a few seconds as indicated by the funeral director
- Relax. Funeral directors are experienced at advising pallbearers so listen to their instruction.
Is Being a Pallbearer Difficult?
The role of pallbearer means many things. Carrying the coffin, supporting the family which might also include tasks such as collecting flowers and thanking mourners for attending. A pallbearer is a symbol of support for the mourners.
Men or women can both be pallbearers, and often the pallbearers are close family members or friends.
Nerves are a normal part of being a pallbearer but the funeral director and their staff are there to help and guide you. These are experienced people who are used to the circumstances.
If you’ve been asked it’s likely it’s because your presence will offer comfort to the family of the deceased. Every funeral service is different and you might only be asked to greet guests.
If you do decide not to take up the request because it would be too emotional for you, then the family will understand. But advise them in plenty of time.