What’s a Catafalque for a Casket? Definition + Purpose

Updated

How many times have you seen a word that you didn’t recognize, and you were sure that you didn’t know the meaning? “Catafalque” may be one of those words. If you’re curious to learn the meaning of this word (pronounced ˈka-tə-ˌfȯ(l)k) and learn where the term came from, here’s a good starting point. Below we give famous examples, and explain how the Catholic Church uses it.  

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Although this word may not come up when you are planning for your own funeral, it is a fun word to be able to use periodically to impress your friends and family.

It may also be helpful to know the name if your travels take you to places where elaborate catafalque is displayed. 

Catafalque Defined

There are two definitions of a catafalque in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. The first is “an ornamental structure sometimes used in funerals for the lying in state of the body.” The second definition is “a pall-covered coffin-shaped structure used at requiem masses celebrated after burial.”

Lying in state?” “Pall-covered?” You shouldn’t have to look up other words that are used in the definition of the first word. Basically, a catafalque is a platform that is used to hold the deceased’s casket.

They can be ornate or simple. A catafalque may be moved to the funeral location, or it may be stationary. Finally, even though we will be discussing note-worthy catafalques in history, it is important to realize that they can be used for an ordinary person’s funeral as well.

Etymology

Catafalque is an old word and has been used since 1641. It’s been traced back to the Latin word “catafalicum,” which means “scaffold.” 

The Italian word for a catafalque is “catafalco.” Those who are fluent in Italian use the term figuratively at times to mean a “monstrosity” or a “bulky object.” Such as “get that ‘catafalco’ out of my way.”

Where Do You Typically Find Catafalques? Are They Common?

Since the word “catafalque” refers to a platform that holds up a casket or coffin, catafalques can typically be found at funeral homes, churches, and crematoriums. 

While catafalques are common, using the word “catafalque” to describe them is rare. A quick internet search of the term yields images of famous catafalques, like those described later in this article. Such catafalques may be seen in museums and on display at churches or cathedrals. They are typically highly decorative, wooden structures used to hold the caskets or bodies of a famous person. 

Typically, the platforms that are used to hold a casket or coffin are called biers. Like many words, the meaning of this word has changed through the years; initially, a “bier” referred to a single piece of wood that the body was laid directly on after death. 

Even this word may be a bit antiquated. The modern funeral industry tends to use “funeral trucks” to hold a casket or coffin. 

Funeral trucks are collapsible and portable. The structure can be concealed with a funeral truck drape to give the impression that the casket is sitting on a permanent structure. 

Whether you call the platform a catafalque, bier, or funeral truck, the purpose of the item is to hold a casket or coffin off of the ground. 

What’s Considered a Catafalque Party?

A catafalque party refers to a group of people who guard or stand over a catafalque as a body lies in state. Usually, the deceased is a distinguished person, often known for serving in the military or government. 

A catafalque party may also stand guard at an important monument. 

A catafalque party usually consists of four armed sentries and a commander. While their goal is to protect the body of the deceased, this protection is typically more ceremonial than necessary.

The members of the catafalque party usually stand facing outward from the catafalque with their heads bowed and their weapons reversed. Holding the weapons reversed is considered a unique sign of respect, although the origin of this practice is unknown.

The term “catafalque party” seems to be used more in Australia than in other primarily English-speaking countries. In the United States, the group of people overseeing the funeral of a dignitary is usually referred to as an “honor guard,” “ceremonial guard,” or “guard of honor.” 

Honor guards are typically used in military funerals, but they may also be used in military weddings. Honor guards may also be present at funerals for fallen police officers and other civil servants. 

Being a member of a catafalque party or honor guard often requires specialized training. An honor guard party or catafalque party may have a relief party so that the guards can have a rest from the rigid movements required by this ceremonial guarding. However, according to the Wikipedia page that discusses primarily Australian catafalque parties, the soldiers are not changed during a religious or memorial service. 

While the movements of the catafalque party or honor guard may vary, the people in charge of this ceremonial guarding are usually known for their meticulous dress and grooming habits. Shoes are polished, and uniforms are immaculately clean and pressed. 

What’s the Difference Between a Catafalque and a Bier?

Both a catafalque and a bier are used to hold the casket or coffin, but there are some subtle differences between the two words.

The word “bier” is much more popular and common. Biers are used at typical funerals and are more structurally necessary than decorative. 

Catafalques are used following notable deaths, and they are decorative structures that also serve the same purpose as a bier. Because they are decorated, a catafalque is sometimes used in place of a casket (and a body). If the body of the deceased is not present, a catafalque may take its place. 

Both catafalques and biers may be movable. In fact, the word “bier” comes from the Old English word “bær,” which means “handbarrow or litter.” Its root meaning means “to carry.” Still, some biers are permanent structures that can’t be moved. 

The Oxford English Dictionary first records the use of the word “bier'' in the year 872. The term can also be found in the Bible. The latest record of its use in the OED is from 1877.

If you are still struggling to understand whether to use the word “catafalque” or “bier,” consider the item itself. In most cases (except for one notable example discussed in the next section), a catafalque is highly decorated.

Famous or Notable People Who Had Catafalques

While there’s not much to be said about a structure that holds up a casket or coffin, there have been many notable catafalques throughout history. One of the most famous examples in the United States was made with everyday materials, but it has been used to hold the caskets of the most celebrated people of our time. 

We will also give examples of more ornate catafalques that have been used to hold the coffins of great thinkers, politicians, and religious leaders. Many of these catafalques can still be seen by tourists visiting Europe.

President Abraham Lincoln

Soon after President Lincoln was assassinated, the son of a close friend of Lincoln’s constructed a simple catafalque out of some rough pine boards. The simple structure was covered with a draped, black cloth. It was used when Lincoln’s body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. 

Even though the catafalque was created with humble materials, it has been used many times in the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court Building since 1865. It has held the caskets of chief justices, other presidents, and U.S. senators. Visitors can see the Lincoln catafalque in the U.S. Capitol’s Visitors’ Center.

Voltaire

Voltaire, (born François-Marie d’Arouet) was a French writer, philosopher, and activist who lived during the 18th century. He is known for being an important member of the Enlightenment period, which led to both the American and French Revolutions. 

Much has been written about the end of Voltaire’s life. Voltaire was known for his criticism of the church. Since he was not a Christian, it was planned that he would be buried near an earlier home in Eastern France instead of in a consecrated cemetery. 

After Voltaire died, his body was embalmed, and his brain and heart were removed. His corpse was dressed, and to fool the public, he was placed in an upright position on his carriage. It was the intention of those around him to make it look like the philosopher was going on a journey.

The body did not do well on the bumpy carriage ride, so when the procession stopped at a monastery, it was decided that he would be buried there. 

Thirteen years later, his body was exhumed. Officials decided his body needed to be returned to Paris, and a grand celebration was planned.

Millions lined the parade route. Twelve horses drew the casket. Orchestras and choirs accompanied the body. Four men who were dressed in classical theater costumes carried a gold statue of Voltaire.

A golden casket, holding the complete works of Voltaire, was carried in the procession. This was not the typical grave decorations that one usually sees. 

And as for his catafalque, the illustrations of the platform show a two-tiered structure. It was decorated with theater masks. Written on the side were the words: “Poet, philosopher, historian, he made a great step forward in the human spirit. He prepared us to become free.”

The Catafalque of the Catholic Church

According to Catholic.com, a catafalque takes the place of the bier whenever the remains of the deceased are not present. Usually, it is covered with black cloth and decorated with the image of a cross.

The catafalque would receive the same attention as a corpse if one were present. During absolution, it is sprinkled with holy water or incense. 

The Catafalque of St John’s Cathedral in Valletta, Malta

One of the most elaborate catafalques ever constructed is held at the St. John’s Cathedral in Malta. It was made in the 1700s and is more than 32 feet tall. It has spaces for over 230 candles and was used for many funerals of dignitaries, including popes, kings, and queens throughout the centuries.

The catafalque of St. John’s Cathedral was used in 1963 when Pope John XXIII died. After that use, it was considered in disrepair, and it was disassembled. In 2012, it was restored and has been on public display.

Pope John Paul II

Although the famous catafalque was not in use when Pope John Paul II passed away, his catafalque is also considered noteworthy.

The catafalque used for his funeral was a simple structure, but it was draped with a gold cloth. Since his funeral was televised, and millions were in attendance, this catafalque may have been the most viewed one in history. 

Michaelangelo

Similar to Voltaire, Michaelangelo’s body was also secretly removed from the city of his death. His body arrived in Florence and was carried into the Santa Croce Church by 32 artists. 

Five months later, a funeral was held in San Lorenzo Church. The church was decorated with giant paintings depicting his life, and there was a 53-foot long catafalque placed in the middle of the church, on which Michelangelo’s body was placed.  

Making a Catafalque for Your Own Funeral

As you make plans for your own funeral or the funeral of a loved one, you may not be thinking about the designs of your catafalque. In fact, such consideration may have not even entered your mind. Even though your funeral may not take place in the Capitol Rotunda or a cathedral in Europe, it will be an important event for your family and close friends. Your funeral service will allow them to say goodbye.

Choose the music, the pallbearers, the flowers, and the readings. Make life easy for your family members. Give them the chance to focus on their memories of you by taking care of as many details of your funeral service as you can ahead of time.

If you're looking for more on funeral planning, read our list of funeral terms and how to plan a memorial service.


Sources

  1. “Bier.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. March 2021.
  2. “Catafalque.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 6 March 2020. merriam-webster.come.
  3. “Catafalque.” Catholic Answers, 6 March 2020. catholic.com.
  4. “Catafalque Parties.” Army Museum of South Australia. amosa.org.au.
  5. ”The Chapelle Ardente At St John’s Co-Cathedral.” Malta Independent. 25 September 2012. independent.com.mt.
  6. “The Lincoln Catafalque.” Architect of the Capitol. aoc.gov.

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