The role of the pallbearer goes back further than written history. The individuals who carry the casket at a funeral service, pallbearer literally means the people who bear the ‘pall,’ the pall being the heavy cloth traditionally draped over the coffin or casket of the deceased. In ancient Greece and Rome, the pall described the cloaks that soldiers and officials wore, which would ultimately cover them in death.
Pallbearers can be anyone that the deceased was close to, or who held a meaningful place in their life. As we guide families through funeral planning, we ask them to think about the people who held special meaning in the deceased’s life. Oftentimes this includes sons, grandsons, brothers, best friends, or teammates. At funerals with military honors, members of the armed forces may carry the casket. Pallbearers have traditionally been men, but many women have also helped carry their loved one to their final resting place. Honorary pallbearers may also be chosen to walk behind the casket and to be seated in special seats at the funeral.
Pallbearers may choose to wear a special boutonnière of the deceased’s favorite color, or create their own small ritual to honor the deceased. We often see pallbearers at funerals have an intimate toast to their loved one before the service, or lay their boutonnières ceremoniously on the casket as it’s being lowered into the ground or as it enters the retort (cremation chamber).
When a family member or close friend participates in the rituals of death, it holds deep significance. Like choosing groomsmen or bridesmaids, pallbearers signify a close bond they had with the deceased in life. To carry their loved one to their final resting place, the last milestone, is a powerful experience, and one that can help the bereaved in the process of healing.
The custom of pallbearing connects love in life to love in death. It connects the grieving to one another. It connects the older generations to those who will one day continue on the same beautiful and meaningful traditions. To help a loved one across the threshold from life to death is a final act of love, not just for the life being honored, but also for the family who must say goodbye. And, although in the moment it may not seem like it, the individual who felt the weight of the casket on their shoulders may feel the weight of grief a little less difficult to bear.