Equal in death

Farmville Enterprise March 14, 2018

Last week I learned two things related to coffins. The first was that the caskets of Ruth and Billy Graham were pine plywood and made by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. The second was the meaning of the word “pall.” I was familiar with “pallbearers” but had no idea about the derivation of the word.

“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,” according to the June 1992 issue of Reformed Worship.

When my husband Rocky did his Clinical Pastoral Education at Tewksbury Hospital he was touched by the simplicity of the caskets of a lot of the patients. (Many denominations require their seminary students to complete Clinical Pastoral Education as a way to give them experience in pastoral care. This is also the main method for training hospital and hospice chaplains.) This particular state hospital in Massachusetts offered medical and psychiatric services to challenging adult patients with chronic conditions. The average patient had been denied placement by three of more health care facilities because of behavioral issues and/or due to a high-risk history which necessitated increased resources to provide a safe environment. Rocky and his fellow C.P.E. students would attend the funerals of patients where often there were no family members or friends present. Many of those bodies were placed in plywood caskets.

During this season of Lent we are reminded of the common plight of all humanity, poor and rich alike, which is our earthly mortality. The priest or pastor who administers ashes on Ash Wednesday typically repeats words from Genesis 3:19; “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” 1 Timothy 6:7 reminds us that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”

A wonderful prayer at the end of many funerals gives us good motivation to focus on worthy goals. “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.”

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