Dr. James Taylor

Dr. James Taylor

By James S. Taylor, Angelicum Great Books Program Moderator

            I was a pall bearer in Lawrence, Ks. last Friday afternoon at the funeral of my dear university teacher and long time friend, Dr. Dennis Quinn.  Mr. Quinn, as we affectionately called him, liked words; he liked to rediscover the life in them that had been neglected with their overuse and often their misuse.  I remembered this about him when we met with the funeral director to receive our directions.  I have carried other caskets before and recalled the simple but precise instructions.  I noticed he referred to us as “casket bearers”, and not pall bearers.  I wondered why.

            In Catholic and Anglican liturgies, the “pall” (or pallium) is a square card covered with embroidered linen to cover the chalice that contains the wine before and after consecration. (Orthodox and Eastern Catholics liturgies use a veil that sometimes covers the unconsecrated bread and at other times is waved over the consecrated chalice).  But the pall stays in place on top of the chalice, except for the consecration and distribution for Communion, to protect the sacred contents from outside elements. 

Dr. Dennis Quinn

Dr. Dennis Quinn

            The “pall” associated with funerals was once called the “mortcloth”, that is, the death cloth, and is closer to the Latin pallium, cloak.  Not surprisingly, this was a custom that developed in the Middle Ages; at first, these cloaks that covered the casket were of bright colors and patterns, then later in medieval times, were changed to black; and now, for the most part, have returned to white.  Naturally, there has been discussion and controversy over the change in colors and their symbolic significance.  It is my understanding that the color white represents the cleansing of one’s baptism and the color of Christ’s victory over death and the Resurrection.

            The pall cloth that lay over Mr. Quinn’s simple polished wood coffin was an off white color with a beautiful embroidered red colored cross toward the top of the rich fabric with the length of the cross running top to bottom with the same mixture of red and gold.  I saw it closely as we met the hearse in front of the church, unloaded the casket, three men on each side, and carried it up the stairs and inside St. Lawrence Catholic Church.  At this point, the funeral directors unfolded the pall and covered the coffin, which is not taken off again until the casket is lowered into the ground at the cemetery.

            But why the change from pall bearer to casket bearer?  Had we been using the word incorrectly all this time?  Was it more accurate to say we carried a casket, than carried a pall?  Technically, we carried both.  I’m usually on the side of custom and tradition in these matters of usage even if I do not have a rational explanation for retaining the old, and resisting the new.  I suppose Mr. Quinn loved Charles Dicken’s novels and stories as well as anyone and more than most, and thinking about words again I recalled the opening of A Christmas Carol as a case in point:

            Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

            Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 

            Thus, I remain a pall bearer primarily, and a casket bearer secondarily.  The pall is that which covers the sacred as we saw with the chalice as well as the body of the deceased; the first,  was once believed by all Christians and Catholics and Orthodox today, covers and protects the sacred Wine, the Blood of Christ held in the chalice.  The second use is not as exclusive to one or two ancient Christian churches, that the pall covers the sacred remains, that is, the body temple of the Holy Spirit, a body destined for glorification in eternal existence.  The pall over the casket hovers like the Holy Spirit with angels over the gifts of life in the tomb of our resurrection, protecting the holy remains from desecration – the soul departed, yet no empty husk here!  Remember the bodies gone before us into heaven, of Elias, Enoch, and some believe, of Moses, now dwelling there, their bodies whole and entire and in glory.  Though he returned to earth, St. Paul was lifted, body and soul, into the third heaven.  And, of course, the Mother of God was assumed entire into heaven, following as it were, the Body, Soul and God Head of her Son.  These are the things Mr. Quinn believed and we believed them too though perhaps not as well as he.

            This glory is all before us, but now we bear the sadness of the death cloth as surely as we know that this pall is the present burden of eventual joy and not of gloom.  We remember that “to bear” also means to give birth to,  and it was this thought I had as we carried our old friend and teacher toward the freshly dug grave in the Lawrence cemetery and laid down Dennis Quinn for the last prayers.

            In case you didn’t know, Dr. Quinn was professor of English at the University of Kansas for many years.  (Please see his obituary.) He loved poetry the way teachers are supposed to love their subjects – so that their students come to love with their teachers poetry, science, philosophy, history.  One of Mr Quinn’s favorite poets was the seventeenth century English and Anglican Divine, John Donne.  Someone remembered to print one of Donne’s famous sonnets on the funeral program.  I think Quinn knew this one by heart.  Standing under the canopy at the grave side, I reached in my coat poet and found the copy handed out at the church, and read again, as if listening to Mr. Quinn read aloud in his office as he often did when I would visit him on campus.


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.