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.



15 thoughts on “Shouldering responsibility

  1. Charles Cowling

    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 that unusual in the 21st century.
    And finally – families who wish to bear are always welcome – all you need to do is mention it, that being said if nobody is available/capable/willing to do it then you need employees at hand to step in.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Timo Shay

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    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 suitcase we schlepped, bumping against our knees, we raised that old witch on high. She deserved as much, in the end.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

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

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

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

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

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

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Tony Piper

    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…

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

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

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Thank you for these responses, everyone. Thank you for dropping by, Jeanne. I hope we’ll see more of you. And if it’s any comfort, I too have had a cracking piece rejected by the Oldie, who have not even reviewed my book, the death-averse bastards. In disagreeing with my assertion you are at one with the readership of this blog. Debate’s the thing. I am wrong more often than not.

    As for you, Jonathan, the last person I heard guessing your age put you at 106 and wondered why you walk tilted to one side. “Who’s he think he is, the Leaning Tower of blaady Pisa?”

    Seriously, women coffin shoulderers are still a rarity, aren’t they? And I cling to my assertion that they would be happier doing it at arm’s length. Wouldn’t they? I’ve always seen it as a silly male thing, shouldering, but this may stem from my uneasiness around ceremonial.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Jeanne Rathbone

    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! It should be the
    the norm to allow friends/family to drive the chief mourners.

    I think it is time that we had USABLE handles like those mentioned by Rupert Callender. I hate those shiny plastic, ersatz brass ones just as much as I dislike the plastic flowers that abound crematoria and cemeteries.

    I also discourage wreaths/bunches of flowers and strongly recommend that mourners lay a single flower /piece of greenery on the coffin instead- more ecological and rational.

    There is so much that needs to done to improve funerals and to shake up the dismal trade. I have just posted a piece which was rejected by THE OLDIE magazine on my blog about this.

    I have enjoyed dipping in to this blog.

    Good luck.
    Jeanne Rathbone

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    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 inquestionable taste are decorative only, forcing you to shoulder them which in turn requires everyone to be the same height. It’s a ceremonial fait accompli. This year we have had an eighty four year old carry a coffin with her eight year old great grand daughter, as well as lower the coffin together. A remarkable moment.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    “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 the vehicle and on to the burial/cremation site, and from the vehicle to the committal room onto trestles, or to the graveside, and from there down into the grave or up onto the catafalque from where it can be taken into the furnace room and loaded by at least one family member into the cremator.

    (How to persuade a family into all this rigmarole, I hear you ask – simple, just wait for the inevitable moment when they enquire: “what normally happens when…?”, and tell them!)

    You’d need a big family for anyone to have to get left out of accompanying the dead from the deathbed to the afterlife, or feeling the dead weight of the dead, or whatever symbolism pallbearing evokes for you; and you only need one assertive family member or friend, or else an imaginitive enough funeral director, to give everyone the chance to be part of this important element in the funeral.

    Bio-mechanical schmio-mechanical. What kind of a bunch of wimps are we breeding!

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    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!!!

    Charles Cowling

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