Shouldering responsibility

Charles Cowling

You will have your own feelings about the photo above showing Jo Yeates’s body being carried to the grave.

It unsettles me. I don’t like to see those big men in black macs in such a close relationship with the body. It wouldn’t do for any of mine. I don’t want men I’ve never met carrying anyone of mine.

That’s a point of view, and points of view are not prescriptive. Lots of people like to see a coffin shouldered in this traditional and dignified way, and I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. But I would be perfectly happy to expand on my disinclination.

There is obvious symbolism in raising high the dead person. But to rest the weight on one shoulder? Bio-mechanically speaking, it’s not a sensible thing to do. Spines hate it. It would make much better physical sense for bearers to carry the coffin on the tops of their heads in much the same way African women carry water pots. But that would look wrong, would it?

Sure, you don’t need to be a skilled bearer to hang on safely to a shouldered coffin. Rookies do it all the time, clinging in some terror to the jacket on the other side. But whoever does it, it doesn’t look comfortable. It looks hesitant and a bit wobbly, especially going up steps or through doors. Bio-mechanics are against it. It’s against nature. It’s also against women. How often do you see a woman shouldering a coffin?

I like to see family members and friends carry a coffin – if there are enough of them. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a duty owed. In life, in death, in the words of the U2 song, ‘We get to / Carry each other.’ Carrying the coffin is something people who don’t deliver eulogies, read poems, arrange flowers, can do. A good funeral is one where people shoulder responsibility and do as much of what needs to be done as they can. Taking the weight is in itself symbolic.

But a coffin needs to be carried at arm’s length. That way, everyone can join in. Women, children, the old. Four or five down each side, one at the head and another at the foot, some perhaps only making physical contact. In relays, if necessary, as they still do in parts of Scotland.

It creates a much better mood. In my opinion.

 

 

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Public
Public
2 years ago

Have you seen the crazy advert by Capsula Mundi and their notion of having a biodegradable egg shaped capsule in which a corpse can be placed in foetal position and then buried? I would like to see how that could be transported anywhere – if it ever went beyond the idea stage. They have a smaller one for ashes which really does exist it would seem – for 400 euros payable online.

Ruby
Ruby
3 years ago

I’m seeing some comments here about ‘ban the trolley’ but as an employee of a funeral home (a female who bears by the way) I have to disagree with you! As unpleasant as it can look – would you really expect 4-6 people to carry a 19 Stone man on their shoulders? My father is obese and I would expect them to use a trolley because I would not want these lovely and respectful people injuring themselves just because trolleys aren’t aesthetically pleasing. On the topic of female bearers I’ve seen many and work with 2 others – it’s not… Read more »

Timo Shay
Timo Shay
3 years ago

There are many variables, I work in the funeral industry. We as a company, always prefer that clients bear the casket or coffin. The best laid plans of mice and men come to rack and ruin. Often there are no family members or friends in attendance; many have a care worker only. Sometimes it is just too dangerous for members of the public to bear such a weight, it is a skill.

james
9 years ago

It’s the MAC’s guys …….those grisly echoes of the Victorian “Pall” under which our forbears crouched and carried……. that the pro-bearers wear rain or shine. Their deathly uniformity is meant to be respectful but only adds to the alienation and unreality of the affair. PS I have a theory that other than ‘hodds’ with bricks in (I too was a bricklayers’ apprentice for a summer, Jonathan) there’s very little else we carry on our shoulders – especially with someone else keeping step (or not). The weight of my mother’s coffin I can feel to this day. It was not a… Read more »

Martin
9 years ago

Ban the trolley, carry at arms length or on the shoulders and have female bearers, all should be involved.

Kingfisher
9 years ago

Yes, yuk to wheels. It’s a coffin, not your shopping.

Charles Cowling
9 years ago

With you, Tony. Spindly, ziggy-zaggy chrome. Or its predecessor, the tea trolley. Dreadful!

Tony Piper
9 years ago

Hurrah for carrying and real handles – much more accessible and much less scary. Just none of those fold-up fits-under-the-deck trolleys, OK? They look ridiculous (a beautiful box on spindly steel) and, to me, suggest the ultimate in laziness…

Rupert Callender
9 years ago

Wow Jeanne, you officiated at Dave Allen’s funeral??

Comfort Blanket
Comfort Blanket
9 years ago

When my dear old grandad died a few years ago, I asked if I could shoulder his coffin alongside my male uncles and cousins. I’m so glad I did. It made me feel close to him on so many levels. And remains one of the proudest moments of my life.

Claire
Claire
2 years ago

I did the same at my grandpa’s funeral today and totally agree with you 🙂

Jeanne Rathbone
9 years ago

I am a Humanist celebrant. We had a woman pall bearer from the co-op yeterday in West Norwood Crematorium, London. As an Irishwoman I am well used to family members, male and female, being pall bearers. It is the norm there. So, I disagree with your assertion that “It’s also against women” I very much encourage women to help carry the coffin and successfully persuade them to do it. But the funeral trade is still very male and conservative eg whats with the funeral limousine- a very expensive taxi. This is a hangover from when most people didn’t own cars!… Read more »

Rupert Callender
9 years ago

We employ no bearers for this very reason. It actually makes our job more difficult; at every funeral there is a point when we have to describe the mechanics of bearing and lowering a coffin to some distracted upset mourners who aren’t really listening but the emotional satisfaction is worth it, and you are spared the gentlemen above who, no disrespect to them as individuals are representative of the breed. And for the same reasons, all of our coffins have usable handles, which happen to be from the new environmental breed of coffin. Traditional coffin handles as well as being… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
9 years ago

“Bio-mechanically speaking”? Wot’s that? I was a bricklayer so long I can’t even guess the number of concrete blocks I’ve carried on one bio-mechanically-challenged shoulder, but I should think it’s enough to build a sizeable mausoleum for a small village. It has left me fitter than the average 59-year-old, I’ll grant; but shouldering a coffin is child’s play in comparison, I can tell you. One way to make sure everyone can join in is to design the ceremony to involve enough coffin miles. From the mortuary to the vehicle, out of it to the venue (preferably some distance), back into… Read more »

David
9 years ago

I totally agree Charles, people should be carried by people who love them. Not by strangers.

No one else is going to carry my Dad but me.

Although there is a resistance sometimes for the families to ask, they feel like they are putting people under pressure when in reality I feel most people feel honoured to be asked.

All goes back to getting people to talk about it.

Martin
9 years ago

We always suggest family and friends carry and lower the coffin.
Most are a bit hesitant but after a bit of gentle persuasion most do it.
Afterwards they all say how rewarding it was even if a bit nerve wracking, none of the perceived calamities have occured yet, maybe a bit of wonky lowering but it’s family/friends what does it matter!!!