Pallbearer Duties and Etiquette

Pallbearers taking a casket out of a hearse
Being asked to be a pallbearer is an honor and big responsibility. Rich Legg/E+/Getty Images

One of the things that need to be done when planning a funeral is determining who will be asked to be pallbearers to carry the casket if there is one. Having pallbearers during a funeral is a common tradition for many religions. The purpose of a pallbearer is to safely transport the remains of the deceased from one location to another. You may need to choose pallbearers, or you may be asked to be a pallbearer. It's important to understand what's involved because the position is both an honor and a responsibility that requires understanding pallbearer etiquette.

What Is a Pallbearer?

A pallbearer is someone who is selected by a close family member of the deceased to help carry the casket to the burial site at a funeral.

Pallbearer Duties

A pallbearer's duties begin by arriving early at the church or place of worship for the funeral. Before the funeral service or mass, pallbearers gather around the casket and slowly carry it down the aisle to the front of the church or place of worship. During that part of the procession, family members will be in the front or the back of the casket.

After the service or mass, pallbearers carry the casket out of the church or place of worship and to the hearse. Pallbearers place the casket on a special piece of equipment that lifts it to the back of the hearse. At the cemetery, pallbearers will accompany the casket from the hearse to the gravesite. Pallbearers do not need to lower the casket into the ground at the cemetery, which is a task handled by the funeral director or staff using special equipment.

Who Can Be a Pallbearer

Most caskets have six or eight handles, depending on the size. Typically a pallbearer is chosen and assigned to each handle. There are a few considerations when choosing a pallbearer. A pallbearer can be the following:

  • Man, woman, or nonbinary
  • Close family member
  • Loving friend
  • Trusted business associate
  • Church member
  • Neighbor

When selecting pallbearers, remember that they should care about the family and the person who passed away. Carefully consider their emotional stability, dependability, and maturity. For some potential pallbearers, their grief will make it too difficult for them to accompany the casket. It may be tough, for example, for younger grandchildren to handle the responsibility. But perhaps cousins, nieces, or nephews old enough, typically over the age of 16, may be able to handle the responsibilities and would be honored to be a pallbearer.

Caskets are heavy, so it's important that the pallbearers are all healthy and capable of lifting it and possibly walking with it over uneven ground during the ceremony.

Honorary Pallbearers

There are two instances when you can choose honorary pallbearers:

  • If someone isn't physically capable of helping to carry the casket, they can be named an honorary pallbearer and allowed to walk or ride beside the casket.
  • For people who have chosen cremation, a traditional pallbearer is not necessary. However, honorary pallbearers can be chosen to walk alongside and behind the person carrying the urn with the ashes.

Pallbearer Etiquette

It's an honor to be asked to be a pallbearer. If you're asked, it's important to learn pallbearer etiquette so you can carry out the responsibilities with proper behavior and form.

You will need to be able to handle the position of pallbearer with poise and dignity, even while facing the deep sorrow of others present at the funeral or within yourself. A gracious pallbearer will be respected by others. Here are three critical pieces of pallbearer etiquette to follow:

  • Keep your cell phone off or silenced so there are no disruptions or distractions.
  • Listen to and follow directions from the funeral director, staff, and family so you will know exactly where you need to be before, during, and after the funeral procession.
  • Walk slowly with the casket, do not rush, and stay in step with the other pallbearers.

What a Pallbearer Should Wear

Dress conservatively in a dark suit and tie, dress, or pantsuit. Remember that pallbearers need to bend and move, so wear proper clothing that is comfortable enough and not restricting. Every pallbearer should wear comfortable flat shoes for walking with the casket.

If you are a pallbearer at a military funeral, and you are active or retired military personnel, it is appropriate to wear your uniform.

Where a Pallbearer Sits

There is usually a special place reserved for the pallbearers to sit during the service and the funeral. Unless you have a valid reason for doing otherwise, it's expected that pallbearers stay together. Pallbearers are also expected to ride together to and from the gravesite. It's proper pallbearer etiquette to stay after the funeral and be supportive to family members. This is the time to let them know what the deceased meant to you.