Recently, I served as a pallbearer for my grandfather on my mother’s side. I had never served as a pallbearer before. I have served as a Lutheran pastor in many funerals in the past fifteen years. I have been a son at the burial of my father. I have attended hundreds of burial services. But being a pallbearer was a unique experience.
I quickly realized that there is good bit of the ridiculous in the task. One does not do too terribly much. Pall bearers are no longer necessary in any tangible way. The service they once supplied (carrying the casket from church to graveyard) has been replaced by various mechanical devices, the automobile chief among them. A funeral these days can get along quite well without those six men marching in and out of the church or chapel. Pallbearing is vestigial, a once utilitarian necessity now carried out from habit.
The tradition carries codes and ways of acting. You step into a role and do what has been outlined for you. You realize that countless other Christians before you have carried the same burden, walked the same aisle. The task itself and many of its components are archaic, fast losing significance for those who witness them. The pall itself, for many a puzzling custom with little if any meaning, proclaims a tie to centuries long silent. That a simple white garment decorated only with a cross could be a final statement seems remarkable these days. A pall is wildly out of touch with the individualism and ostentation so in vogue. However, that is what pall bearers do; they bear the pall. They carry the dead, covered only with a baptismal emblem. That is what has been done for centuries.
To be part of it, to march in two tidy rows down the long aisle of a church with casket and family and clergy is to find oneself in a line, not just the line walking in and out of the church, but a procession of the living and the dead. From time immemorial mankind has gathered to mark death. All have had to deal with the fact of a corpse. In such times there is something sacred about we do. How we treat the dead says an awful lot about how we live. For the strong and able to serve the helpless dead, to honor frail remains, reaches deep inside us to something basic to humanity. To carry a heavy box filled with a father or mother or brother connects us to countless ancestors who have carried the mute dead. We are unlike them in so many ways, yet the experience of death unites us, the desire to honor the dead ties us together.
Many customs and traditions in many areas of life are disappearing from among us. Liturgy in the church, national “rites” such as the Pledge of Allegiance or taking off one’s hat at the National Anthem, and countless other shared activities are being lost. There is some advantage to the rejection of a “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. But there is also a danger. More is lost than simple habits. We become more and more isolated, more alone when we mark times and feelings such as birth and marriage and war and patriotism and death in idiosyncratic ways. It becomes “just us” and our decision. Any other greater meaning is gone. When we do things that have always been done, even when it seems antiquated or strange (such as pall bearing), we are affirming that we are not free agents who have landed on the planet in the last twenty years. We have fathers and mothers, grandfathers, great grandmothers, ancestors, who worked and gave birth and believed and raised children, and we are the beneficiaries of that struggle. We have a past to which we are connected through ritual and the shared experience those rituals bring.
A custom such as pallbearing is like a great tidal wave that rolls through the centuries. Each generation joins in it and is carried by it. In so doing the individual is connected to those who have gone before him or her by swimming in the same waters, being propelled by the same currents. This connectedness to the past through rituals and actions is a part of who we are as men and women who are born from other men and women who were born from other men and women, and so on. We are not the first to face death. We have ancestors. Mankind has always sought, at crucial times, to forge some connection with these forbears through doing the same thing they did. It is a part of a communal memory. We remember ancestors by acting like they did when we are born or die or are married.
The rush to be “individuals,” to express ourselves or have our own identities, has in the past century engulfed and destroyed many traditions such as pallbearing. Flamboyant displays of personal preference have turned weddings and funerals into extreme manifestations of self. We dare not do a “traditional funeral,” for we are told that such was not who the deceased “really was.” The soon-to-be-married go to great lengths to design a wedding that is “their own” unlike any other. Ironically, in the hurry to be ourselves, we lose more than we gain. We shake off our connection to the great wave of the past and are diminished not enlarged. In stepping out of the stream of history, we isolate ourselves and become shallow puddles of self rather than members of a great deluge of lineage and relations.
Pallbearing involves all of this. It is an ancient custom no longer necessary but one that remembers the dead and the dead before them. I walked in the same way, carrying my grandfather as he had walked, carrying his brothers as those before him had done. To do this same thing, to walk the same path as they, meant I was more than a solitary individual grieving alone. I was a part of a human community stretching back centuries, all of us facing death together.
Pallbearing is archaic in other ways. I served with male cousins and sons of my cousins. This is one of the few roles I have yet to see a female perform. I am sure pallbearing is performed by females in many places, since most all-male roles are fast disappearing. Being a pastor (in many if not all ecclesiastical locales), a warrior, a statesman, and much else, is no longer synonymous with being a man. All this sounds very chauvinistic, I know. Much of this change, if not all, is good. I have four daughters. I have no desire to close doors of opportunity for them. Yet it cannot be evil to think that there must be something that is still reserved for men alone. The words “Be a man” still echo when one is carrying a casket. To stand up straight and do what must be done is an honorable calling. The urge not to weep, to look forward toward the altar as one processes in, and not to succumb to one’s emotions must still call forth admiration somewhere.
Carrying a casket is not only a metaphorical carrying of the past. It is a physical bearing of a particular human body. One feels the weight of the dead. One carries someone who can no longer carry himself. There is, in fleeting moments, real exertion involved. The funeral home tries to make it as easy as possible, with carts and rollers in the hearse and at the cemetery. But one must, at the proper time, grab the casket and lift. One is lifting an actual person who lived, who had a body, who married, worked, spoke, and all the other things flesh and blood people do. To carry his now dead bones means something. Those fingers and hands and bones have weight. They toiled and were strong. My grandfather lost most of two of his fingers working in a Houston, Texas, factory. I saw those stubs lying on his chest in the strange funeral home light the day before he was buried. Those fingers always struck me as signs of strength. He kept on working. He never applied for disability. I don’t recall but I suspect he didn’t miss many days of work after the accident. It would have been too much for him to sit around and look for sympathy. There was too much to do. That those fingers are now weak and waste away is but a command to his sons and grandsons and great grandsons to lend their strength to one who has fallen.
To carry my grandfather to his tomb connected me to him even as he lay silent, the casket closed and draped. It brought to mind his visits to our home when I was a boy and he was already in his sixties. His muscles were taut and his frame hardened by labor. He was a man of things, of machines and pastures and cattle, very different from me, who has always centered on books and thinking and classrooms. He treasured pickup trucks and property, measured in acres and the number of chores that could occupy his time. Lately he was unable to do any chores, and his pickup sat idle in his son’s driveway. Others carried him to the piece of property where, finally, after decades of ceaseless activity, he rests.
The now silent ninety-four-year-old whom we carried to a hole in the ground was a man of passions and energy. Much of it was often misdirected. He would sometimes explode in rages of anger and jealousy. He hurt those who were close to him. Yet he was a Christian. Baptized and, in his clearer moments, focused entirely on Jesus. Hebrews 13:8 was a favorite passage: Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The KJV and The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod were anchors for him amid much change. He bought a house in the 1950s in north Houston that was soon overrun by crime and poverty and sinking real estate values. He found himself in a world that kept changing its rules, kept sinking into a mire he couldn’t fathom. He faced children who moved away and divorced, grandchildren who seldom visited. It was, for him, a world in chaos, a world passing away. All he could do was hold on to that Jesus, the one who didn’t change, the one he glimpsed in the memorized German hymns of his youth, in the cadence, almost but not yet broken, of church year and communion service.
To be a pallbearer was to serve that man, to give a gift to him in his death. It was to say: “Here is one thing that will not change, at least for now. Here is a tradition we will enact, a ritual we will uphold.” To be his pallbearer meant, for a few moments, witnessed only by a few aging Lutherans in a southwestern American city, to stand in tribute to that God-given faith of his. It was a faith that grasped desperately at the eternal hidden in the temporal, in human things like factories and hymnals and funerals and caskets and burial plots. It meant to carry his remains to the dirt he had so often obsessed over. It meant to carry him who had never wished to be carried, who had always stood and walked and worked. It meant to say to him, finally, “What you wanted, what you raged to find, what you worked for is now yours, now rest from your labors.”
That is what a pallbearer does. He bears someone else’s burden. He bears the family’s burden, the burden of the dead. He does so out of respect, out of love for those who have gone before him. He does it because that is what is expected of him. My grandfather did it. We did it. God willing, others will do it for us.
Rev. Paul Gregory Alms is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Catawba, North Carolina.