On Bearing the Pall

ImageIt occurs to me that being a pallbearer is one of the few tasks in the modern world that everyone understands is best left to the men. Women have achieved unprecedented parity in nearly every field of human endeavor (which is, by and large, a good thing), but when it comes to shouldering dead weight, men still are typically the ones who get the nod.

First of all, there’s the weight itself. Even if distributed among six, it still is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve known women who could lift their fair share of weight (my wife has a tendency to push all the furniture around a given room every eight months or so, only to decide she liked it best where it started), but should they have to? Men are typically more advanced in the brawn category, even in our soft, couch-sitting, high-fructose-corn-syrup-fed modern age. That physical strength still gets used (or, sadly, misused) on occasion, but there’s far less scope and call for it than there used to be. Most of us have jobs that involve pressing buttons or waiting on technology, rather than doing the work ourselves. Traditionally “manly” callings become less so all the time — even the military is being remade to reflect societal changes. (Whether or not you agree that’s a good thing is a different conversation.)

Then there’s the distance that weight must be carried — it must be reckoned with, even if the pain you might feel as a pallbearer might be more in your forearm muscles than in your heart (and I’ve had both). Just a short jaunt down the center aisle of a church and out the door to the hearse can often seem longer while carrying that weight (both kinds). And then you get to the cemetery, where the ground might be muddy, the wind cold and in your face, or the sun hot, burning down on your bare neck, the footing rutted or uneven, but yet you must plow steadily on, as the departed is borne to his or her last resting place. They sail on, tranquil as a ship, while you grunt and might begin to break a bit of a sweat underneath the collar of your dress shirt. (I actually heard a funeral director utter the phrase, “Grandma was not a big lady”, once while funeral arrangements were being made. Under different circumstances, I would have chuckled out loud.)

Yet we are glad to do it. It’s often the last thing, one last gesture, we can give the departed themselves, as our lives bob along in time’s wake and we are pulled ever further from the memory of them. Thomas Lynch, undertaker and author, once wrote of grief as being full-body work. It must involve all your large muscles in order to truly be put behind you, was his thinking. As one who has borne the pall in the past, I would tend to agree with him. Few duties in the modern world are as loaded with symbolic importance, yet still as practical and useful, as being a pallbearer. Here’s to doing a good job at carrying out the dead, and to not having to do it too often.