A Christian funeral is a ceremony that marks the end of a person’s life on earth. Each Christian faith has developed their own funeral liturgy and rituals based on their beliefs and teachings. One such ritual encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church in Canada to emphasize the importance of the deceased person’s baptism is the use of a pall or cloth to cover the casket.
Within the funeral liturgy of the Catholic Church there are several references to the baptism of the deceased. The first reference occurs at the very beginning of the liturgy, during what is referred to as “the rite of the reception of the body.” Just prior to the start of the service, family and friends of the deceased gather inside the entrance of the church with the casketed remains of their loved one. Here they are met by the officiating parish priest who welcomes everyone and then begins the service as he is facing the casket. He then acknowledges that when the deceased was baptised into the church he was “clothed with the garment of salvation.” At this point during the rite of reception, the pall is placed over the casket by family members, friends, pallbearers or parish volunteers. The priest then turns and leads the family and deceased into the church.
The use of the pall becomes a reminder of the baptismal garment. Just as a new Christian is clothed in a white garment when he or she becomes a member of the church, the casket is covered with a similar cloth as the person enters into a new life in the resurrection of Jesus. Covering the casket is a way to make a statement about the identity of the deceased. It proclaims that the greatest thing that can be said about the deceased is that he or she is a sister or brother of Christ, a member of the Church.
The pall is also a sign of hope, of the resurrection, of new life beyond this life, a banner that points to a continued relationship to the deceased person in the time to come.
It is an ancient custom to cover the casket with a funeral pall. A custom which is still practised by many Anglican parishes today. In contrast to the Catholic tradition of placing the pall during the rite of reception, the Anglican Church prefers that the pall is placed as soon as the casket is brought into the church prior to the start of the service. For the Anglican Church its use signifies their belief that in the eyes of God all are equal.
In the Catholic Church the design and colour of the pall is very basic and simple. It is usually all white with a single large embroidered cross or a row of small embroidered crosses. If the pall contains a single cross, the cross should be positioned over the head of the deceased with the bottom facing towards the feet. As the deceased traditionally enters and leaves the church feet first, the cross will always be seen in its most reverent position. As previously mentioned, the colour white serves as a reminder of the white baptismal garment.
The designs of funeral palls used in Anglican Churches are much more elaborate. They are beautifully embroidered with a variety of patterns and colours. As the use of the pall in the Anglican Church appears to be more ceremonial its cloth is much thicker and heavier than the thin, light cloth used in Catholic funerals.
In the Catholic Church the identity of the deceased as a Christian is considered to be fundamental and its primary focus in their liturgy. For this reason, only Christian symbols may be on or near the casket during the funeral liturgy. The pall or white cloth is the Christian symbol used by the Catholic church to remind the community of the person’s baptism. Therefore, it is their belief it does not need any symbols added to explain or add to what it means.
When a war veteran or person who has served in the military dies, many families wish to give prominence to the flag of the country under which he or she fought or served. As traditionally done at military funerals, the flag is draped over the casket. For Anglican Churches who use a pall, families are permitted to drape the flag over the casket in place of the pall during the funeral service.
For a Catholic service, the flag must be removed from the casket for the liturgy. It can be draped over the casket during its transportation to the Church and removed and folded with appropriate ceremony and respect just before the pall is placed during the rite of reception. The flag then becomes part of the ritual in the liturgy. At the end of the service the pall is removed and once again the flag can be placed on the casket as it exits the church and is conveyed to the cemetery or crematorium.
As an alternative, the flag can be put on a stand and displayed in the church, either at the entrance or positioned next to the casket at the alter. Each church has their own requirements respecting the positioning of flags or other symbols of a person’s service to the community or country.
It is customary when the casket is draped with a pall or flag that nothing be placed on it. In the absence of a pall the casket may be adorned with flowers, flags and insignia of various associations or organizations. If the flag or insignia is positioned on the foot of the casket and does not serve as a pall, the family flowers may also be displayed on the casket.
When cremation occurs prior to the funeral service, an urn containing the cremated remains of the deceased may either be placed in front of the alter prior to the start of the service or carried into the church by the funeral director, family members or their representative during the commencement of the service.
Some churches have introduced the use of a small cloth pall which is used to cover the urn while it is on display in front of the alter. A pall has yet to be introduced in the Catholic rite or reception of the body, nor is it used when the urn is transported into and out of the church or chapel.
The writer wishes to acknowledge the use of materials distributed by the National Liturgy Office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in the compilation of this article.