June 2, 2014 -- Professional pallbearers will march, or even dance, caskets to the grave at some funeral homes. Some charge as much as $1,400, or more, for the fancy perk. Others give it away for free, as a way to one-up the competition.
John Houston, owner of the John B. Houston Funeral Home of New Jersey and New York, has been offering professional pallbearers since he attended Lena Horne’s funeral in 2010 and first saw professionals in action, he told ABC News today.
“It’s show business,” Houston says of the service that seems to be catching on in the industry.
Houston, 55, comes from the South, where the use of professional pallbearers, including ones who dance or march, is more common. When the Alabama native arrived in the Northeast, he says, he was appalled by what he calls the mediocrity of funerals. He was searching, he says, for something to make his funeral homes stand out, “something to put me above the rest.”
So, his gym trainer helped him recruit other guys from their gym to lift caskets. “Over the period of five or six Saturdays,” he recalls, “we put together the technique.” Now it’s just about perfected, he says.
“They raise the casket, basically shoulder it at the end of the service from the top of the church down the aisle, and put the body in the hearse,” said Houston, who became a funeral director in the Northeast in 1995. “Then they accompany the hearse, walking. Then, depending on the service, they may do the same thing at the cemetery, shoulder the casket to the grave.”
Of 10 pallbearers he keeps on staff, eight are used at any one time, dressed impeccably in formal attire, bow ties and white gloves.
Out of about 150 funerals he does a year, only five to 10, he says, request the extra service. “It correlates with the deceased’s position in life,” he says.People he calls “upper-echelon” want it. He recently had the family of a councilman in East Orange New Jersey request it.
The White Glove service, he says, blows people away, because they recognize it as demonstrating “the highest level of respect” for the deceased. The only further step a family could take, he says, is offering a 21-gun salute.
In South Los Angeles, the Boyd Funeral Home also offers professional pallbearers, though it offers them at no extra charge as part of any funeral package, Candy Boyd, owner of the home, told the Los Angeles Times.
A Times reporter who recently saw the pallbearers in action described them as immaculately dressed, wearing black top hats, tails, burnt-orange ties and vests, and white gloves.
Their swinging, dancing movements, the Times says, are synchronized to gospel music and carefully choreographed by the team’s dedicated choreographer and drillmaster.
Houston says some funeral homes catering to white customers offer professional pallbearers, but that the phenomenon in the South is more often aimed at African-American customers. Asked why he thinks that’s the case, he pauses for a moment.
“Maybe,” he says of the departed, “it’s because they were so underappreciated in life.”