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Have you been asked to carry a coffin at a funeral? You’ll probably have questions about what to expect. We’ve answered the most common questions about how to be a pallbearer so you feel more prepared for your role.

What is a pallbearer?

A pallbearer is a person who carries a coffin at a funeral service. They’re sometimes also called coffin bearers. Pallbearers usually carry the coffin from the hearse into the funeral venue. They may also carry the coffin to the graveside if the person who died is being buried.

There are three main types of pallbearer:

  • Pallbearers: regular pallbearers are family or friends of the person who has died. They’re chosen by the family.
  • Professional pallbearers: these are usually provided by the funeral director. They will carry the coffin if family and friends don’t feel able to. Professional pallbearers are also used at formal funerals.
  • Honorary pallbearers: honorary pallbearers follow directly behind the coffin but don’t carry it. The family might ask you to do this if you were close to the person who died, but aren’t able to carry the coffin.

Why are they called pallbearers?

The word pallbearer is a combination of 2 words – pall and coffin bearer. In the past a pallbearer and a coffin bearer were 2 different roles. The pallbearers would carry the pall – a decorative cloth draped over the coffin. And the coffin bearers would carry the coffin. Nowadays a pallbearer just carries the coffin at a funeral.

How many people carry a coffin?

There are usually 6 to 8 pallbearers at a funeral. But it depends on the size and weight of the coffin. If there are more or fewer family members who are able to carry the coffin speak to the funeral director. They’ll offer you help by asking professional pallbearers to help carry the coffin. Or they might suggest that some family members escort the coffin instead of carrying it.

Who carries a coffin at a funeral?

Does a pallbearer have to be a family member? Can women be pallbearers? There are actually no rules about who can carry a coffin at a funeral. Anyone can be a pallbearer as long as they feel able to do it. Plus, you can always ask the funeral director what will work best.

If some family members would like to carry the coffin but are not sure if they’ll manage it on their shoulder speak to your funeral director. They might suggest pushing it along using a bier which has wheels to make it easier to move. Or some family members might escort the coffin instead. The funeral director will recommend the safest option, based on the route and the people carrying the coffin.

How are pallbearers chosen?

Choosing pallbearers is up to the person or family organising the funeral. You might decide to choose only close family members to carry the coffin. Or there may be a close friend of the person who passed away who would like to be a part of it. How you decide who should carry the coffin is ultimately up to you.

Do you have to have pallbearers at a funeral?

Not necessarily. If having pallbearers at a funeral doesn’t feel right or isn’t what you had in mind you don’t have to. You might choose to have the coffin at the funeral venue before people arrive instead. Speak to your funeral director about what you’d like in advance so they can make the necessary arrangements.

Do you have pallbearers at a cremation?

Yes, you can have pallbearers at any part of the funeral where the coffin will need to be carried, including the cremation.

What do pallbearers wear?

Traditionally pallbearers wear a suit or formal dress in black or dark colour. However, less traditional funeral clothing is becoming more popular. So it’s best to ask the family or funeral director what the pallbearer dress code is. You’ll also want to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes in case you’re walking across uneven ground.

Find out more about what to wear to a funeral.

Do pallbearers need to arrive early to the funeral?

It’s a good idea to arrive at the funeral early so you have time to talk to the funeral director and other pallbearers. You’ll agree things like:

  • How to carry the coffin (on shoulders, by the handles, or on a bier)
  • Where you’ll stand when you’re carrying the coffin
  • The route you’ll walk along

You’ll also want to practise walking along your route so you know if there are any steps or other things to be careful of.

Should I be a pallbearer?

Being a pallbearer can be tough physically or emotionally. Before accepting the role, it’s fine to have a think about if it’s right for you. You might choose not to be a pallbearer if:

  • You don’t feel you’re physically strong enough to carry the casket
  • You have a physical condition that could be harmed by heavy lifting
  • You’re worried that you may feel too emotional on the day

If you do decide to be a pallbearer, remember that the funeral director is usually on hand on the day to help the pallbearers carry the casket in a safe and steady way. They’ll also answer any last-minute questions you have about what to do.

Is it rude to turn down being a pallbearer?

It can feel difficult to turn down being a pallbearer. But if you decide it’s not right for you, it’s important you tell the person organising the funeral as soon as possible. Most people will understand your decision – after all, they don’t want someone carrying the coffin if they don’t feel up to it.

If you want, you could offer to help out with another part of the funeral instead. This means you can still show your respect and your support for the family.

How to ask someone to be a pallbearer

It’s a good idea to ask someone to be a pallbearer as far in advance of the funeral as possible. Talk to them as soon as you can to give them an idea of what they’ll need to do. It’s common for people to be unsure at first. But talking through how to be a pallbearer may reassure them and give them the confidence to do it. Discussing any concerns they have with the funeral director beforehand may also help them feel more confident about carrying the coffin at the funeral.

How to carry a coffin

It’s natural to feel nervous about carrying a coffin. There are actually a few different ways to do it, depending on the weight, the number of people carrying it and the route that you need to walk. Here are some general tips on how to carry a coffin confidently and as safely as possible:

  • Always follow the advice the funeral director gives you.
  • Beforehand, talk through who should stand where with the funeral director. They’ll usually ask the tallest pallbearers to stand at the back and the shortest at the front.
  • Stand up straight and keep your head up so you can see your route clearly.
  • Take your time and try to step in time with the rest of the pallbearers.
  • Keep the coffin close as you walk. This will keep you and the coffin stable.
  • If you’re unsure about anything ask for help. Your funeral director is there to support you.

On the day, the funeral director will be on hand to tell you how to carry a coffin and to make sure it’s done with care and respect. They’ll go through every detail with you so that you don’t have to worry about carrying the coffin at the funeral.

What's it like to be a pallbearer?

If you've been chosen to be a pallbearer at a loved one's funeral, it may help you to hear about other people's experiences of carrying a coffin. Below, Alicia takes us through her experience of being a pallbearer for her grandfather:

"I was asked to be a pallbearer at my grandfather’s funeral. It was something my mum wanted to do, and due to the COVID restrictions at the time, which were pretty much at an end, we had to decide whether we wanted the funeral director’s pallbearers to carry the coffin, or if we wanted a full family carry. After taking a few days to discuss as a family, we decided all of ‘the girls’ would take the job of pallbearers.

"As a family, we visited my grandfather at the chapel of rest. This was the first time I had been up-close to a coffin. I had been to funerals before, but this was different. I could experience the size of a casket in a way I hadn’t done before. This is when it really set in, what we would be doing in the following days. 

"The day of the funeral came. A rainy Tuesday in December 2021. I was battling with all the emotions of grief, alongside the anxiety of knowing I had to be a pallbearer for one of the most important people in my life. We followed the hearse to the crematorium in a limousine, it wasn’t a long journey, maybe around 20 minutes, but I remember it being the longest 20 minutes of my life. 

"When we pulled into the crematorium we had to line up behind the hearse, my mum, aunties, cousin, a family friend and myself. They placed us in height order, smallest at the front – that’s me. The professional pallbearers gave us our instructions, we had to feed the coffin from the hearse and ‘lift’ onto our shoulders. Through the tears, in pairs we took our positions. ‘And lift’. And that was it, somehow, we were now carrying a coffin. The weight, both physically and emotionally is something I will never forget. 

"Once we were ready to walk into the crematorium, we heard the music begin playing. This is where it got hard. I knew I was saying goodbye to the man who was my rock from day one. Now I wanted to make him proud one last time.  

"The professional pallbearers dotted themselves up the aisle to make sure we were ok. Having that reassurance, that if I needed to step out, I could, made it that little bit easier. 

"Once we reached the platform where we had to place the coffin, we brought the coffin down from our shoulders onto our arms and fed it across. We had done it.  

"I don’t regret saying yes to carrying my grandfather’s coffin, but it certainly isn’t something that everyone wants to do. This could be for emotional/personal reasons or physical reasons. My advice to anyone who has been asked to be a pallbearer or is thinking about being one – is take the time to understand your needs. Do you feel up to it? If the answer is yes, then I have every faith you can do it. If the answer is no, that’s ok too. 

"One final note – If you do say yes, flat shoes are a good idea! My Doc Martens were a sensible pick from me!"

Poppa 3   Alicias story

Read more of Alicia's story

See how she planned her grandfather's funeral and personalised it with music, humour, and readings.

Photo from iStock.