A Guide for Pallbearers

Among the many ways to honour a departed loved one, serving as a pallbearer holds a special significance. It’s not just a role—it’s a cherished privilege that allows close friends and family to actively participate in the farewell process.

What is a pallbearer?

Pallbearers are trusted friends and family tasked with gently conveying a loved one from place to place at a funeral or cremation service. While traditionally associated with carrying a casket, pallbearer duties have evolved with changing funeral practices. Today, pallbearers might carry urns during cremation services, adapting to the diverse choices families make.

The term "pallbearer" beautifully encapsulates the role, combining "pall," a burial cloak from ancient Rome, with "bear," signifying the act of carrying the weight of a loved one.

The role of a pallbearer

As the service begins, pallbearers stand in quiet solidarity, ready to respectfully carry the casket or urn at the service's conclusion. Once the service has ended and the funeral procession begins, pallbearers reverently pick up and carry the casket or urn out of the funeral home, place of worship or other location where the service was held. The procession may lead to a nearby cemetery or crematorium, depending on the family's wishes.

If the loved one is to be buried and the cemetery is adjacent to the service location, the pallbearers will walk the casket to the gravesite. Otherwise, they move the casket into the funeral coach after the service and from the funeral coach to the gravesite at the cemetery. If the loved one is to be cremated, they may carry the casket to the crematory if it's on-site. If the loved one was cremated before the service, they may carry the urn out of the service and to the cemetery or funeral coach.

Depending on the family’s preference, a loved one's casket may be carried at waist height or shoulder height. Pallbearers may carry it without mechanical assistance or there may be a wheel bier or trolley to help out. Either way, each pallbearer places one hand on the bar of the casket, keeping their other hand behind their back. While carrying the casket, pallbearers walk slowly and steadily, coordinating their steps. After setting the casket down, they bow to the loved one.

Instead of a casket, pallbearers may carry a loved one's urn ark. Though an urn ark may be made of other materials, it's typically a wood and glass display box with brass handles on each side. However, pallbearers for a casual memorial or celebration of life may find that they carry an urn atop a surfboard, in the seat of a kayak, in a wagon or in some other creative reflection of the unique life of the person being honored.Guide to Pallbearers_1

Who can be a pallbearer?

Pallbearers are usually family members or close friends of the person who has died. Grown children might serve as pallbearers for their parents. Siblings, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins can be pallbearers. Friends, neighbors, college pals, co-workers and others who were close to the person being honored can also be pallbearers.

For a service with a casket there are usually four pallbearers, though there may be more for larger loved ones. There may be fewer pallbearers for a cremation service, as an urn ark requires less strength to lift and carry than a casket.

Pallbearers need to be physically capable of carrying the casket of a loved one, which can weigh hundreds of pounds. If the casket is going to be carried at shoulder height, the height of the pallbearers may be a consideration. Pallbearers also need to be able to have considerable emotional strength to perform their duties without strong outward expressions of grief, no matter how they may feel during the service. A funeral can be a difficult time, and the act of carrying a casket can have a profound impact on a person. A pallbearer needs to be able to carry a loved one without overwhelming emotion.

Someone who isn't physically able to carry a casket may act as an honorary pallbearer. This could include a child, an elderly person or someone in a wheelchair or with another challenge that might prevent them from lifting or walking a distance. In that case, the honorary pallbearer would sit or stand or otherwise be nearby the other pallbearers but not handle the casket or urn.

If you’re invited to be a pallbearer

If a loved one planned ahead of time, he or she may have named pallbearers. If not, family members choose the pallbearers for their loved one.

If you're asked to be a pallbearer, consider it an honor and act of trust. You may want to accept the invitation without question. If you wish to decline, a simple, heartfelt response suffices.

If you're unavailable to attend the service, you can say something like, "I'm out of town that day, but Jenn was such a good friend to me. I will miss her dearly, as I know your family will, too."

If you plan to attend the funeral, memorial or celebration of life, but you don't feel comfortable being a pallbearer, you can say something like, "Thank you for asking me. Though I am not able to be a pallbearer, I will absolutely be at Tim's service. He was a dear friend to me, and I want to support you and your family by being there."

Either way, if you're asked to be a pallbearer, you’ll likely want to extend your condolences or send flowers or a gift.

What to wear and other tips

If you accept an invitation to be a pallbearer, dress appropriately for the service. Pallbearers for a more traditional service wear suits or modest dresses in dark or muted colors. For a less traditional memorial that wouldn't be the case. Instead, pallbearers might wear uniforms or sports jerseys or sorority-letter shirts, which would be decided and communicated ahead of time.

An outdoor celebration of life during the summer could call for shorts. Guests to a beach-themed celebration might find pallbearers in tropical shirts or breezy linen. If you're unsure about what to wear, ask a member of the deceased's family.

The day of the service, pallbearers should arrive a little early to receive any important instructions. Although you should understand beforehand what's expected, there's no need to worry about perfectly remembering the order and timing. The funeral director will guide you, subtly letting you know when it’s time to perform your duties.