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A Symbol of Faith: Using a pall in Christian funerals

The funeral will soon begin in the church sanctuary. Family, friends, and members of the congregation have been seated and are awaiting the processional. In the narthex stand the minister and the pallbearers with the coffin. As a white cloth, or a "pall," is respectfully laid on the coffin, the minister begins the service with familiar words from Galatians 3:27: "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" he says. "In his/her baptism,__________put on Christ; in the day of Christ's coming, he/she shall be clothed with glory."

When the minister has finished speaking, he solemnly leads the procession into the sanctuary. The pallbearers follow, carrying the pall-covered casket to the front of the church…

What Is a Pall?

The funeral ritual described above is a somewhat unfamiliar one in the Reformed tradition. We are used to pallbearers, but not to palls.

A pall is simply a large cloth that covers the casket. Centuries ago, when the pall was first used, it was generally black, the color of death and mourning. In Scotland the black pall was called a "mort-cloth"; it was used to cover the bodies of the poor who could not afford caskets. In the Netherlands, even the horses that drew the hearse were draped with a black pall.

Today, palls are usually white. As part of the liturgical renewal that has followed Vatican II, the primary emphasis in Catholic funerals has moved from mourning the death to expressing hope in the resurrection. Other communions as well have adopted liturgies that resonate with the promise that all who are baptized into Christ have "clothed themselves" with Christ, and that all who are buried with Christ in baptism will be raised with him in newness of life. Palls are often adorned with Christian symbols that focus on Christ and on the resurrection.

The pall helps the congregation focus on the worship of God and the hope of the resurrection by de-emphasizing the relative expense of coffins and showing the equality of all people in Christ. It has a democratizing value, for it prevents both the display of a costly coffin and the discomfiture of a simple one.

The white color of the pall reminds those assembled of their faith in the resurrection and further symbolizes putting on the robe of Christ's righteousness in baptism. It is especially appropriate to recall baptism— the beginning of a Christian life—as the body of someone who has faithfully served Christ during life enters the church for the last time. The symbols on the pall are clearly Christian (perhaps the Chi Rho symbol for Jesus Christ, or a gold cross, or a vine and branches).

Where to Get a Pall

Some church ecclesiastical arts catalogs offer funeral palls for purchase. The smaller size (about 6' x 10', with square corners) covers the coffin, while the larger (8' x 12', with rounded corners) drapes over the coffin, falling to the floor at the four corners. Palls are usually fully lined so that they hang gracefully over the coffin. Fabrics include polyester, cotton damask, silk, and tapestry.

When ordering a ready-made pall through a catalog, a congregation is given many choices of symbols and designs. The purchaser may also choose to custom order a pall, designating the fabric, symbols, orphrey embroidered bandings, and trimmings. The cost of finished palls ranges from $225 to $1500.

Funeral palls can also be handmade. A suitable white fabric is chosen and cut to the desired size as described above. Since most fabric is not available in the width needed for a pall, a length-wise center seam is usually required and can be covered by orphrey banding or other designs. Often a horizontal band is applied to form a full-length cross, with the crossing either in the center or near the head of the pall.

Those making the pall may either choose to embroider symbols directly on the fabric or to purchase symbols from a catalog to applique on the pall. In one retirement home residents weave their own funeral palls, a witness to their faith and understanding of life.

A Symbol of Faith

Often the use of a pall is introduced into a congregation through one family who chooses to use this meaningful Christian symbol. After using the pall in the funeral of someone they love, they present the pall as a gift to the congregation. When palls are given as gifts to the church, they often include an embroidered memorial inscription, similar to the following: "This funeral pall is given to the Greater Glory of God and in Loving Memory of __________by__________, on __________(date)."

A few years ago a dying member of our church asked her family to obtain a pall to use at her funeral. After she died, the family made that pall (pictured below) available to other church members. In describing it for the congregation, the family summarized beautifully what the pall can mean in a Christian funeral:

Its whiteness symbolizes the resurrection, and the large blue Chi-Rho at the center represents Jesus Christ. Surrounding it are symbols of the Eternal Life given to all believers (the crown) and of the Holy Spirit's presence (the flame), along with the Latin word Pax (the Peace of God). The pall symbolizes the clothing of the departed believer in Christ's purity and beauty, and emphasizes our equality in God's sight. None have any special claim, and all leave this life as they were born into it—with nothing except God's love.

Excerpt
Rethinking Older Funeral Customs

Many older funeral customs which have been purged from our formal and informal rituals for funerals need to be examined again in the light of what we know about the needs of people at the time of grief. Preparation of the body by friends, construction of a coffin, the making of a shroud, pallbearers who really carry a coffin in and out of a church (rather than walking behind the coffin as the funeral director rolls it in on a cart), the use of a pall, the casting of dirt on the coffin after the commitment, and the actual covering of the coffin with dirt can all be visible, tangible, therapeutic ways of helping people act out their needs related to death.

—John H. Westerhoff III and William H. Willimon, Liturgy and Learning Through the Life Cycle, New York: Seabury Press, 1980.