If you’ve ever attended a funeral, you may have seen several individuals working together to carry the casket. These were the pallbearers, the people who assist in carrying a casket during a traditional funeral or burial service. Pallbearers are usually present at traditional Catholic funeral masses and Christian funerals.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Can Women Be Pallbearers?
- How to Ask a Woman to Be a Pallbearer
- Etiquette Tips for Women Pallbearers
Jewish funeral ceremonies may also feature pallbearers. It’s a great honor to be asked to be a pallbearer. The role is often filled by close friends and family members and may have been pre-selected by the deceased. Being a pallbearer is physically intense work - a casket is already heavy, and having to transport it with a body inside is even more demanding.
So there will often be six or eight pallbearers working together to move the casket. Pallbearers need to be able-bodied, so they are usually younger and physically fit. Pallbearers are often usually male. Is there a reason for that?
Here we delve more into the etiquette behind selecting a pallbearer.
Can Women Be Pallbearers?
No matter what religion you belong to, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to women serving as pallbearers. There are no religious traditions that seem to bar women from this role. It seems that men are largely asked to be pallbearers based on the presumption that men are better at heavy lifting.
Do you know how much a casket weighs? A casket with a body inside can weigh as much as 300 pounds. Even with six or eight people sharing the burden, that’s a lot of weight to transport. Men are stereotypically considered to have better upper body strength than women.
So people may invite more men to be pallbearers, based on societal expectations. However, any person regardless of gender should be able to play that role as long as they have the physical strength required.
How to Ask a Woman to Be a Pallbearer
The word “pall” is rooted in Christian traditions. It refers to a cloth that was used to cover a dead body or the casket. People carrying a casket covered with a pall are literally “bearing the pall.” The pallbearers are usually family members or close friends of the deceased. They might have left instructions in their end of life documentation for certain people to be pallbearers. Or it might have been a decision made by whoever planned the funeral.
You can ask a woman to be a pallbearer the same way you would ask a man. This is generally done in a serious one-on-one conversation that can be held in person or over the phone. You can also put an invitation to serve as a pallbearer in writing.
Whichever way you approach them, make sure to spell out all the requirements of the job. There are a lot of intricacies to being a pallbearer, so you want to make sure they understand what they’re being asked.
Etiquette Tips for Women Pallbearers
If you’re a woman who has been asked to serve as a pallbearer, you may not know exactly what to expect. After all, you may not know what entails when being a pallbearer. Here, we break down some of the responsibilities that go into playing that pallbearer role:
What to expect
It should go without saying that you should probably be prepared for heavy lifting if you’re serving as a pallbearer. That’s not even necessarily the case, though. Some facilities use mechanical devices like rolling carts to make transporting a casket much easier.
If you have physical limitations, you should let the person asking you know about them right away. In some cases, people will ask friends and family members to serve as honorary pallbearers.
This means they get the honor of a distinguished position even if they're unable to perform the physical responsibilities. You may be able to stay on as an honorary pallbearer even if you can’t help with the heavy lifting.
If you do want to help with the lifting, talk with the funeral director or planner for advice. They may be able to give you helpful tips on the best way to lift the casket.
What to wear
If you’ve been asked to be a pallbearer, you need to dress appropriately for a funeral. But these clothes should also be able to handle some manual labor. Overall, clothes that you wear to a funeral should be conservative and an appropriate level of formality. Dark sober colors like black, navy blue, dark gray, and brown are the best.
Women are often asked to wear a dress or a skirted suit set to funerals. But a woman who is serving as a pallbearer might opt for a pantsuit or dress slacks instead. This keeps a dress or skirt from riding up inappropriately when her arms are raised to lift the casket. Many women wear sensible dress shoes to a funeral, but even a more staid dress shoe might be too difficult for heavy lifting.
Flat shoes with ankle support might be a better choice for a woman pallbearer. A flat ankle boot or Oxford would still be formal enough for a funeral, but will be practical enough to meet the physical responsibilities of serving as a pallbearer. Wearing shoes with a good sole is also important to prevent any accidental slipping.
How to behave
Generally speaking, you need to set an example for other funeral attendees. Be sure not to break any of the typical rules around funeral etiquette as people will look to the pallbearers as leaders. You should plan to get there early and be one of the last ones to leave so that you can help with any last-minute details.
Even if they don’t need your help, just knowing you’re there can give the funeral director one less thing to worry about. Be sure to walk slowly and carefully. Even if you are physically strong, you might get tripped up on uneven land. Finally, stay in your assigned area. There is usually a designated seating area for pallbearers to sit together.
You may also have special transportation to take you and other pallbearers to the burial site. You may want to be near friends or family members during the service, but it’s important to stay where you’re needed. It will help support the family if they don’t have to chase errant pallbearers down.
The Things They Carried
Pallbearers play an important role in a funeral. They don’t just transport a body during a funeral ceremony. They also do a lot of emotional heavy lifting when it comes to helping the family members of the deceased. If you’re asked to be a pallbearer, it’s because the family of the deceased trusts you treat them with dignity and respect.
It also means that they may think of you as a strong and calming presence in their own lives. Be sure to send a thank-you note to pallbearers if you were in a position where you needed to ask people to step up. And if you were asked to be a pallbearer, know that you brought strength to a family in need of support.