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.