Pallbearing as a side job
No room to mess up
‘Gentlemen, hats off.’
With a simple, solemn movement, the gentlemen pallbearers take their black stove pipes off their heads, holding them by their sides with a single hand. They look straight ahead. Friendly, but serious. Slowly, the funeral procession enters the Frisian natural cemetery. It’s almost thirty minutes late, but that’s all part of it. ‘A lot of this work consists of waiting around’, says pallbearer Thijs de Vries (28).
De Vries was only twenty when and his brother Robert (now 33) started Axios Dragers in 2010. The business sends students to funeral services to act as pallbearers. ‘We got the idea from a friend who works at Ferentes, our competitor in Utrecht’, De Vries says in his apartment in the Poelestraat, which also serves as a meeting place and a dressing room for the pallbearers. ‘It didn’t exist yet in Groningen, so it seemed like a good idea to us.’
What started as a somewhat eccentric and unusual student service has grown into a sizeable business. ‘Initially, my brother and I just worked in the immediate area. We would use our mother’s Toyota Starlet to drive from service to service’, says De Vries. ‘Now we serve the entire province of Groningen, as well as Friesland and Drenthe, with a pool of seventy student pall bearers.’
We would use our mother’s Toyota Starlet to drive from service to service
After he finished his law studies at the RUG, De Vries tried to make his way as a lawyer for six months, but he did not like it much. ‘I was working in bankruptcy law, but I was barely interested.’
He went back to pallbearing and since then, Axios has become his full-time job. The Toyota Starlet has been replaced by two white company vans. And in addition to Groningen, Axios has branches in Nijmegen, Delft, and Zwolle. His brother lives in Zwolle with his family, taking care of the business in between changing nappies.
Commander of Pallbearers
Above all, pallbearers have to look presentable. The regulations (black socks, white shirt, a clean-shaven face) are strict. Visible piercings and tattoos are not allowed. All the men have to be between 1.80 and 1.95 metres tall. The coffin has to be balanced, after all.
The bearers listen to the foreman: as the ‘Commander of the Pallbearers’, he’s in charge, giving orders before, during, and after carrying the casket. The order – ‘hats off’, ‘walk’, and ‘please’, the latter being the order to lower the casket into the grave – are fairly self-explanatory. Everything has to go smoothly and professionally: there is no room to mess up. A funeral service is an important occasion and ‘can only be done right once’, is De Vries’ creed.
The first time can be pretty stressful. You only half know what needs to be done, and before you know it, one of the bereaved asks if you can hold her purse, while a bug is crawling around your shirt collar at the same time. Also, you’re just about to carry the casket from the car to a rolling bier to take it to grave. But the road there is uneven, and the bier’s handle detaches and slips from your grasp.
If you can’t figure it out, just look at us
In other words: a lot is happening in a short time. In between the long periods of waiting evidenced by packs of playing cards in the pallbearers’ overcoats, you have to stay alert, and stay calm. Fortunately, no one is ever alone. ‘If you can’t figure it out, just look at us’, De Vries tell his employees beforehand. The foreman is usually the one who has talked everything over with the funeral director and the bereaved. The rest just follows.
After the casket has been buried in the Frisian soil, the pallbearers walk towards the exit. There, they will form an honour guard. They face each other in two rows and when the commander tells them to, they once again take off their hats while the funeral attendees slowly walk back to the car park, nodding to the pallbearers. Then, a final ‘gentlemen, hats on’ rings through the cemetery grounds. The day is done.