If you’ve ever been to a traditional funeral or seen a funeral scene on TV, you might have noticed that there’s a procession around the coffin when it moves from place to place. The people carrying the coffin at a funeral are known as pallbearers.

Being a pallbearer is an honour and a great responsibility. If you’ve been asked to carry or accompany someone’s coffin, it usually means that you were very important to the person who has died. But what does a pallbearer do? Let’s see…

 

What is a pallbearer?

A pallbearer is one of the people who carries the coffin at a funeral. They might be carrying it from the hearse to the place where the ceremony is being held, or from the ceremony to the burial site, or both.

It’s usually up to the family of the person who’s died to decide who should be pallbearers. They might choose relatives or close friends of that person, neighbours and community members, colleagues and business associates, or members of an organisation that meant a lot to them. The funeral director can also arrange professional pallbearers, if that’s preferred.

How many pallbearers there are mostly depends on how much the coffin weighs. There are usually between four and eight pallbearers, or one per handle if the coffin has them.

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Can women be pallbearers?

While some religious rules and traditions might restrict what women can do during funeral ceremonies, anyone can be a pallbearer at a secular funeral. Female pallbearers are not unusual. Their gender isn’t important; what really matters is that they are strong enough to carry a coffin safely, and about the same height as the other pallbearers.

 

What is an honorary pallbearer?

Being an honorary pallbearer gives someone the opportunity to accompany the person who’s died to their final resting place, even if they can’t carry the coffin. They’ll usually walk alongside or behind the coffin as it travels.

People might choose to be honorary pallbearers if:

  • They are a different height to the other pallbearers
  • They aren’t able to carry it themselves (for example, if they are very old, very young, or disabled)
  • The person has been cremated and there is an urn instead of a coffin
  • The coffin is being transported on wheels rather than carried on shoulders

 

How to be a pallbearer

An empty coffin weighs at least 20 kilos on its own, so it’s very important to listen carefully to any safety instructions you get. The funeral director will usually be on hand to advise pallbearers on how to carry a coffin at a funeral. Coffins with no handles are carried on the shoulders, and coffins with handles might be carried at waist height.

It’s also important to be able to keep calm as a pallbearer. A funeral is naturally a very emotional occasion, but sobbing can make carrying a coffin on your shoulders far more difficult than it needs to be.

Here are a few general tips about being a pallbearer in a funeral and how to carry a coffin:

  • Show up on time (or earlier, if you’re asked to).
  • Take anything that’s likely to make noise out of your pockets. Give your mobile phone to someone else to look after until you’ve carried out your pallbearer duties.
  • Use the proper technique for lifting heavy objects, keeping your back straight and the coffin close to your body – see the NHS guidelines here.
  • Watch where you’re walking.
  • The coffin traditionally travels feet first – shorter pallbearers should take the foot end.
  • Make sure the bearer on the opposite side to you is roughly the same height.
  • Keep pace with the other pallbearers. You’ll usually be walking slowly.
  • Avoid talking loudly or laughing.
  • Be dignified and respectful at all times.

 

What do pallbearers wear?

You might be wondering what to wear. It’s best to follow the dress code (all funerals are different, but we have some advice here). Make sure that your shoulders are covered, and that your sleeves allow you to lift your arms above your head. Finally, wear sturdy, comfortable, flat shoes.

 

Where do pallbearers sit at a funeral?

Pallbearers usually sit together, close to the front of the room. Traditionally they’re on the right hand side. That said, sometimes pallbearers sit with their families. If this is the case, try to choose an aisle seat so that you can get up easily.

If you’re not sure where to sit at the funeral, the funeral director, celebrant or religious representative leading the service will guide you.

 

Now you know more about pallbearer etiquette and duties, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether you want to be one. Whatever you decide, we wish you all the best.

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