What is a catafalque? And what is it used for?

A catafalque holding a casket in a garden.

Wondering what a catafalque is? Here we explain what it is and what it’s used for in 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.

What does a catafalque look like?

A catafalque is usually covered in a pall which is material that’s draped over the structure. It can be decorated or left plain depending on the cultural or religious traditions of the person who died.

See the picture of a catafalque below to get a better idea of what they 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.

What is the difference between a catafalque and a bier?

A catafalque and a 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 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.

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