Palls have become an essential part of nearly every Christian funeral and contain rich symbolism.
If you have ever attended a Christian funeral, especially those celebrated in the Catholic Church, you might have seen a large cloth that covers the casket during the liturgy. This cloth is called the pall and from it we also get the word pallbearers, designating those people who assist in carrying the casket during the funeral.
It’s unclear when exactly Christians began to place a large cloth over the casket, but the tradition appears to have begun during the Middle Ages. Originally the pall had multiple uses, as it would be later used for priestly vestments for the celebration of the Mass. These palls were quite elaborate and were various colors according to the situation.
Eventually the pall was entirely black in color to match the priest’s vestments, symbolizing the grief experienced by the death of a loved one.
After the Second Vatican Council the pall was ordered to be primarily white in color. The Order of Christian Funerals explains the symbolism, “A pall … placed over the body when it is received
at the church [is a] reminder of the baptismal garment of the deceased … a sign of the Christian dignity of the person. The use of the pall also signifies that all are equal in the eyes of God.”
At a Christian baptism the newly baptized receives a white garment, which symbolizes their purity, and the priest prays a special prayer that links this garment to a person’s future death.
[Y]ou have become a new creation,and have clothed yourself in Christ.See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.With your family and friends to help you by word and example,bring that dignity unstainedinto the everlasting life of heaven.
The white pall is meant to remind those present at the funeral of this reality, and the prayers said during the funeral reflect the hope that the deceased is bringing that white garment before the judgment seat of God.
The many symbols used at a funeral are designed to help those grieving understand the great mystery surrounding death and encourage them to reform their lives so that they can join their relative or friend in the heavenly embrace of God. No matter how much we try to avoid it, death will come to us all and we will find ourselves before God, presenting to him our own baptismal garment, which may be unstained or in need of some extra washing before being admitted into his presence.