If you have been asked to be a pallbearer at a loved one’s or friend’s funeral, it’s only natural that you might feel nervous about carrying a coffin. While many of us dream about becoming a bridesmaid, godparent or best man, few of us think about the day we may be asked to play a ceremonial role at a funeral, and it’s understandable if you feel unprepared.
If you were close to the person who has passed, it may be important to you to help them on their final journey, but worry that your height, strength, age or gender means that carrying a coffin is out of bounds for you. You may also have concerns about taking part in what is likely to be a deeply heartfelt experience, and apprehensive that you won’t be able to “hold it together” emotionally. You may even have been asked to carry a coffin, but feel you can’t fulfil this role.
With the right support and advice, many different kinds of people can act as pallbearers. It is also completely understandable if you would prefer to turn down the responsibility. In this article, we’ll explore the duties of a pallbearer, and hope that with some more information, we can help to allay any nerves you are feeling.
*For simplicity, we have usually used the term “coffin” throughout this article, but the information provided also applies to caskets.
Carrying a coffin
The responsibility of a pallbearer is to take the coffin of the person who has passed, carrying it from the hearse to where the funeral service is conducted, the crematorium, and/or their final place of rest. Pallbearers are often people close to the departed and carrying the coffin can be a meaningful way to say goodbye – a profound tribute in their last journey.
Can you turn down being a pallbearer?
It is an honour to be asked to be a pallbearer, but this does not mean you are compelled to act as one. You may have many reasons to not want to carry the coffin or take on such a visible ceremonial role, and as long as you acknowledge your gratitude and the honour inherent in the request, there is nothing wrong with turning this responsibility down. It is simply a case of choosing your words sensitively
If you are considering not taking up the role of pallbearer due to concerns that you might get something wrong, it can be helpful to know that a funeral director will be with you every step of the way, and you won’t be left unsupported. If you are worried that you do not have the strength or good health to be a pallbearer, but being part of the ceremony is still important to you, you can ask to be an “honorary pallbearer” – someone who walks alongside the coffin, and perhaps places their hand upon it.
How many people carry a coffin?
Traditionally six people are chosen to carry a coffin, but the task can require as few as four people and as many as eight depending on the coffin’s weight and size. People tend to assume you need to be tall, strong and male to be a pallbearer, but this isn’t necessarily the case, and you can discuss your options with the service’s funeral director.
What is the correct way to carry a coffin?
Rather than there being one “correct” way to conduct your duties as a pallbearer, how the coffin is carried is likely to depend on the circumstances of the funeral. In some cases, the coffin may be conveyed on a wheeled stand known as a bier, with pallbearers guiding its path. In other circumstances, if the coffin’s handles are load bearing, those carrying the coffin may choose to take it by the handles and carry it at waist height.
The traditional way of carrying a coffin, however, is known as “shouldering” – where pallbearers lift the coffin and bear its weight on their shoulders. In the past, this was how people carried their loved ones to the local churchyard, taking rest at the covered archway known as the lychgate, where often the first part of the funeral ceremony would take place.
Is carrying a coffin heavy?
The weight of a standard wood coffin by itself is roughly 20 kilograms, but this can vary wildly depending on the size of the coffin and the materials used. Wicker and cardboard coffins, for example, are far more lightweight than hardwood options. The other factor is the weight of the person who has passed, which of course is dependent on the individual.
The total weight of the coffin is something that should be considered when you are planning the details of how it is going to be carried. If it is over 90kgs, you will need the traditional six pallbearers, and as it gets heavier you may consider increasing this to eight. In the case that the coffin is particularly heavy, or needs to be conveyed over a long distance, it may be advisable to use a bier rather than attempt to carry it.
Considerations for carrying a coffin
Step 1: Consider your suitability to the role
It is important that you do not neglect your own physical health. If you have any back, shoulder or knee injuries, you may benefit from acting as an honorary pallbearer rather than risking aggravating the problem.
Step 2: Planning ahead
Set out to understand both the route you are going to take and how you are going to work together to lift and carry the coffin. This is something the funeral director engaged for the service will be able to guide you in.
If the ground is slippery or uneven, carrying the coffin by its handles (if possible) can be the better option, and one that creates less strain on the shoulders and upper arms. Remember to ensure there aren’t any unexpected obstacles or hazards on your path ahead of time.
Step 3: Getting the balance right
Carrying a coffin (whether by its handles or on the shoulders) requires teamwork. The funeral director will take the lead, ensuring that you are all evenly spaced, have stable stances, and get a safe grip. If possible, ensure that the people opposite each other on either side of the coffin are similar in height, with the smallest members of your group at the front.
Step 4: Lifting the coffin
Once you are all in place, the funeral director will move the coffin from the hearse so each bearer can take its weight as it is moved towards them. The coffin is always transported feet first, so the pallbearers at the front will be at the feet of the coffin. If you have chosen to “shoulder” the coffin and the handles are not load-bearing, you will support the coffin from underneath – lifting to your shoulders in unison on the funeral director’s instruction.
Step 5: Walking with the coffin
Once the coffin is in place (whether this is by its handles, on the shoulders or on a bier) the funeral director will indicate when it is time to make the first step on your path. Traditionally, everyone starts walking left foot first, and when you reach your destination, the funeral director will let you know when to lower the coffin into position.
Whether planning the service or while you are acting as pallbearer, please don’t be afraid to ask your funeral director questions – they are there to help you, and will be happy to offer support.
Can a woman carry a coffin?
Many people choose close friends or family to the person who has passed to act as pallbearers, and traditionally people’s choices have trended towards younger men. There is no reason why, however, that women cannot carry a coffin should this be the family’s wish, or if it is important to the women in question to pay their last respects in this way.
It is generally suggested that people should feel confident in their ability to confidently bear 25kg in weight in order to be a pallbearer, but with the right support all kinds of people can carry out this role. Indeed, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to funeral services, and as we have explored above, the traditional shouldering is by no means the only way to conduct this ceremonial role.
If you are nervous about carrying a coffin, getting more information can go some way in making you feel a little more prepared and less anxious. If you have any questions, we are more than happy to help. Get in touch today.