Pallbearers – A Funeral Tradition

I was asked to serve as a pallbearer at my aunt’s funeral. I was honored to carry the casket of my generous and gentle aunt to her final resting place. Serving as a pallbearer was a new experience for me.

I thought the job was mostly an honorary one. I assumed you walked beside the casket but it was rolled on wheels or the funeral home staff did the actual heavy carrying of the coffin. Not so. At my aunt’s funeral the casket was wheeled to the doors of the church but then we lifted it and carried it manually to the hearse for the drive to the cemetery. Once we reached the graveyard we once again bore the full burden of the casket’s weight as we made our way across the uneven ground to the burial site. My aunt was a tiny person, but her coffin was heavy and I needed to grip the handles with both hands to manage its weight.

I was curious where the tradition of pallbearers originated. Some say the Romans invented the custom of having a person’s body born to the grave by those of the same station in life or the same profession. Julius Cesar for example had judges as pallbearers and Cesar Augustus fellow senators.

Others claim having pallbearers began as a Scottish custom. Apparently in Scotland coffins were born from the deceased’s home to the graveyard by eight men. They stopped along the way to rest, placing the coffin on rock cairns especially constructed at given points on the route for this purpose. At each rest stop the pallbearers changed and eight new men would take up the task.

The word pallbearer is an Old English term. A ‘pall’ was a rich cloth, often purple in color, which was used to cover the altar or communion cup in churches. In the 15th century the term ‘pall’ was also used to describe a cloth that covered a coffin, hearse or tomb. During the 18th century it became customary for four people to be assigned to hold the corners of the pall cloth at a funeral. Later those who were chosen to carry someone’s coffin received the name pallbearers.

Another interesting custom surrounding pallbearers developed in New England in the 1700s. It concerned special gloves for pallbearers. Handsomely engraved invitations to funerals were sent out along with pairs of gloves mourners could wear to the church. Pallbearers received expensive gloves of a much higher quality.

In the past pallbearers were often distinguished from casket bearers. The former were merely honorary and walked beside the coffin. They were people who had been important to the deceased in some way. The casket bearers were hired workers who actually bore the coffin’s weight and carried it.

It used to be only men could be pallbearers. Emily Post in her etiquette book stated this was exclusively a task for males. Now many women serve as pallbearers too. Abigal Van Buren, the columnist of Dear Abby fame, ran a series of letters from female readers who had served as pallbearers. They all found the experience to be significant and meaningful.

I would agree with them. Being a pallbearer is a way to perform a final service for someone who has made a positive difference in your life. My aunt’s laughter, kindness and care enriched my life. I was honored to serve her by being a pallbearer at her funeral.