Everything You Need to Know About Pallbearers

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As the people who carry or accompany the casket, pallbearers play an essential part in funeral services. While the exact practices may vary, it’s important to understand the basics about their role, whether you’re asked to serve as a pallbearer or are selecting them for a funeral you’re organizing.

The term pallbearer stems from the ancient Roman word pallium, which was a cloak used to cover a dead body, explains “The Truth About Death and Dying.” Over time, the term was shortened to “pall,” which came to define a rectangular cloth covering a casket. In the Middle Ages, the cloth would cloak the coffin during the procession. In addition to the people carrying the coffin, others would walk alongside them to make sure the cloth didn’t blow away. Palls are still used to cover the coffin in some churches today, and in military funerals, a flag takes its place.

Duties of a pallbearer

If there’s a casket at the funeral, there will likely be pallbearers. In fact, pallbearers can be found at funerals of various religious traditions, including those of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. Pallbearers won’t be involved at a memorial service, as there isn’t a coffin. Typically the pallbearers are friends, relatives, business associates, or members of the deceased’s religious organization. Their responsibility is to carry the casket.

If the funeral features an open casket, it will already be set up in the room where the funeral service will be held. However, if it’s a closed casket service, pallbearers will usually carry it into the space at the beginning of the service. After the service, pallbearers will usually bring the casket out to the hearse or other transportation. The funeral director may ask the pallbearers to travel in a vehicle driven by funeral staff to the gravesite, so that they all arrive at the same time as the deceased. If a cemetery burial follows, the pallbearers will likely carry the casket to the grave site, as well.

There may also be honorary pallbearers, who play a role in the funeral but don’t actually carry the casket. This gives relatives or close friends a chance to participate even if they can’t physically lift the casket, which can be heavy. If the funeral contains a processional into the room where the service will be held, the honorary pallbearers will enter the room, two by two, before the casket, which is carried by the pallbearers. After the casket is placed in its location, the pallbearers will take their seats. If the body is cremated, honorary pallbearers may walk with the person carrying the ashes.

Choosing pallbearers

The number of pallbearers will depend on the number of handles on the casket, which is typically six to eight. While men usually fulfilled this responsibility in the past, today women also serve as pallbearers. The main criteria are to select reliable individuals who are reasonably strong and who can maintain a calm disposition at a time that can be sorrowful.

When planning the funeral, be sure to let the pallbearers know what will be expected of them, and when they should show up at the location. Men should wear a dark suit, and a dark dress or suit is appropriate for women. Because pallbearers may be walking on uneven terrain at the gravesite, let them know that it’s important to wear appropriate shoes.

Pallbearers should arrive promptly, as the funeral director will typically walk them through their duties and the timing before the service has begun.

After the funeral, etiquette experts recommend that family members organizing the funeral should send a thank you note to the pallbearers. This is a customary way to show respect for their participation in this important ceremony.

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