Wondering what a catafalque is? Here we explain what it is, the difference between a catafalque and a funeral bier, and what they’re used for as part of a funeral service.
What is a catafalque?
A catafalque is a raised platform or structure that holds the coffin, casket, or body of a person who’s died. They’re sometimes known as a funeral bier or plinth. They can be used to move the coffin from one location to another. And they’re most frequently found in crematoriums, churches and funeral homes. But they’re also used for funerals of noteworthy people like presidents or religious leaders. This is so that the person can lie in state and people can visit and pay their respects.
What does a catafalque look like?
A traditional catafalque is usually a wooden platform covered in a pall - this is material that’s draped over the structure. It can be decorated with religious symbols or left plain depending on the cultural or religious traditions of the person who died.
Modern catafalques or funeral biers are more commonly made from aluminium and are on wheels. This is so that funeral directors and their staff can easily transport the coffin to the funeral venue for example. But they can sometime be permanent structures too.
See the picture of the catafalque above to get a better idea of what they can look like.
What is a catafalque used for?
People often associate lavishly-decorated catafalques with state funerals and important public figures who’ve died such as Queen Elizabeth II. But they’re actually used a lot to hold coffins during funeral services or memorial services. They’re frequently used in crematoriums to hold the coffin before cremation takes place. In most crematoriums the catafalque is there permanently and it will often be used to move the coffin behind curtains during the committal.
In the Catholic faith a catafalque is used to hold the coffin as part of the funeral mass. But it can also be used at anniversary masses too. It’s placed on the altar to symbolise the person who’s passed away. And it’s usually covered with a black pall and surrounded by six candles.
Where does the word catafalque come from?
The word catafalque comes from the Latin word catafalicum. This means scaffold or elevation. The use of the word catafalque has been traced back to 1641.
Catafalque vs bier: what's the difference?
A catafalque and a funeral bier are both used to hold a coffin or casket in place during a funeral service or memorial service. So some people use the two words interchangeably. But the word catafalque is more commonly used to describe the platform that’s used at a state funeral service or the funeral of someone of national importance. It tends to be decorated more elaborately than a funeral bier. And a bier is more commonly used to describe the structure used at typical funerals. It tends to be more functional than decorative.
What is a catafalque party?
A catafalque party is when people from the military stand guard around the catafalque of an important person who’s died. When Queen Elizabeth II passed away in 2022 her coffin lay in state on a catafalque and members of the UK armed forces stood guard during a 24-hour vigil. A catafalque party sometimes also stands guard over a memorial to commemorate those who have passed away.
Famous catafalques used throughout history
- French writer, Voltaire, was buried miles away from Paris due to his political views. But years after his burial he was moved to Paris to honour his achievements. His catafalque was an elaborately decorated structure with large wheels and three tiers. And it had the following quote inscribed on it: “Poet, philosopher, historian, he made a great step forward in the human spirit. He prepared us to become free.”
- Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque was quickly made after he was assassinated in 1865. It’s a simple structure covered in a black pall. But it’s still used for the funerals of other important members of state in the US Capitol building.
- Queen Elizabeth II lay in state in Westminster Hall from 14th to 19th September 2022. During this time hundreds of thousands of people visited her coffin placed on a catafalque to pay their respects.