A pallbearer is someone who carries or attends a coffin as it is transported during funeral ceremonies. The position is primarily ritual in nature, with most being intimate friends or relatives of the deceased. In the case of funerals for prominent public figures and members of the military, the pallbearers may also include important public officials; the coffin for a police chief, for example, might be accompanied by a mayor and high-ranking police officers in addition to more intimate acquaintances of the deceased.
The pall is the cloth that traditionally covers a coffin, especially in Catholic funerals. Pallbearers may carry the coffin, or they may walk along side as it is carried in by professionals, sometimes touching or holding the pall. In many cases, the coffin is actually rolled on a lightweight cart, so there is no need for anyone to worry about coordinating with other people, and for formal funerals, the coffin may be carried by horses or other animals. If a large number of people are asked to serve as pallbearers, some of them may carry the coffin, while others accompany it as attendants.
Usually, pallbearers carry the coffin from the hearse or private car to the church or other facility where the funeral is to be held. After the ceremony, they accompany the coffin again as it travels to the graveyard or crematorium; if the deceased requires hearse transport, the attendants walk the coffin to the hearse and then accompany it again at its final destination. In a burial, they may help lower the coffin into the ground with the assistance of cemetery staff.
Being asked to serve as a pallbearer is a great honor, as it suggests that the deceased or the family regard the person as a special friend to the deceased. As a general rule, these people are expected to dress in somber colors and formal clothing, and in addition to carrying the coffin, they may assist the family at the funeral. For example, they may circulate among the funeral guests or support the family through the ceremony.
People who have been asked to be a pallbearer and who have not accompanied a coffin before should inform the priest or other officiant and the funeral director, if the family is using one. They can show the individuals what they need to do and how to handle the coffin. It's a good idea for the pallbearers to coordinate with one another to determine who will walk where, and how to dress. If these people will be actively carrying the coffin, they should make sure to keep an eye on each other to ensure that they are all walking at the same pace.