How to carry and lower a coffin

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Many people instinctively want to carry their friend or family member’s coffin. But they are worried that they won’t know what to do, don’t think they will be strong enough or are unsure about whether or not it's allowed.

This is understandable — few of us will ever have done this before. But, at Poppy's, we believe that no one should be denied this opportunity, if it is possible and the right thing for them. We’ve helped children, elderly people and disabled people — as well as all-female groups — to feel comfortable and confident in carrying the coffin.

Carrying the coffin is often an emotionally-charged experience, one which makes a person’s death seem very real. It can be an important way for you to say goodbye to the person who has died, supporting them and accompanying them on their final journey.

Although some cemeteries do not allow friends and family members to lower the coffin into the grave, many do. We’d support and encourage you to take an active role in this part of the funeral ceremony as well.

This blog walks you through some of the advice and guidance that we give every week, to help people prepare to carry the coffin of someone close to them. But remember, this is only guidance, every situation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all. We will work together, assess risks and make adjustments to make sure it feels right for you.

1. Your funeral director should explain everything you need to know in clear and practical terms. They will talk you through the route, how to lift the coffin safely and exactly what you need to do at each stage. They are there to support you and the other bearers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

2. It takes between four and eight people to carry the coffin, depending on its size. Six is usually a good number. You don’t have to be tall, able-bodied or particularly strong, and the role of bearer is not restricted to any particular gender or age. If you are not able to carry the coffin because of your health or strength, you can still arrange to walk alongside it, putting a hand on the coffin without bearing its weight.

3. Your funeral director will make sure the bearers are well spaced out and facing each other by the hearse. They will pass out the coffin so that you can take its weight as it moves towards you. You will support the coffin at waist height from underneath, not by its handles, as these are not load-bearing. Once the coffin is fully out of the hearse, the funeral director will say “Ready to lift … Lift” and then you will lift the coffin to your shoulders.

4. When it is time to move off, your funeral director will say “Ready with left … Left”. Then you will start walking with your left foot first. It helps to keep an eye on the person in front as you go. You can walk at whatever pace is comfortable: you don’t have to march or keep perfectly in step.

5. When it’s time to stop, your funeral director will say “Into hands”. This guides you that it’s time to lift the coffin down from your shoulders into your hands again, and then to gently lower it into position. You will find that you are naturally standing face to face with the other bearers again.

how to lower a coffin

6. If you are also lowering the coffin into the grave, there are a few extra things to be aware of. A couple of strong lengths of wood will be placed across the open grave for the coffin to rest on (these are called ‘putlogs’). There are strips of fabric (called ‘webbing’) underneath the coffin. When it is time to lower, you and the other bearers will take hold of the ends of the webbing and the putlogs will be removed by cemetery staff, so that the coffin is supported by the webbing. Gently lower the coffin, by releasing the webbing, hand over hand. As before, your funeral director will be there to guide and support you.

7. Once the coffin is lowered, many people want to back-fill the grave, by throwing in soil, petals or flowers. This can be a moving and powerful way for everyone, whatever age or ability, to get involved in saying goodbye. Not all cemeteries allow this, and this Covid-19 has led to temporary restrictions at others, but if this is important to you, then we can let you know which cemeteries enable you to do this.

Find out more about what a funeral director does and how they can support you in making your own choices. As well as carrying the coffin, there are so many ways to do more for yourself when planning a funeral.

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