Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
(Wo) man at work: pallbearer
Thomas Diemel/ 24/ master’s student of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences/ works approximately three shifts (ten hours) per week/ earning 10 euros per hour
The doors of the Sint Jan, a small parish church in Hoensbroek, southeast Limburg, are wide open. “Go”, whispers Thomas Diemel. Four young men collapse a wheeled bier and carry the coffin to the altar. The pews are still empty this Thursday morning. The family of the deceased won’t arrive for another half hour.
The tallest of the four waits near the coffin until the service begins. Meanwhile, Diemel is given a framed photograph of an older lady with a friendly smile. A moment later, he picks up a black tally counter to keep track of the number of guests. “Once everyone is inside, I let the funeral director know whether we have enough in memoriam cards. If not, we give one card to each group of people who come in together. The expected number of guests is always an estimate by the family, and turnout may be higher than anticipated.”
As the men wait outside, a woman with a wheeled walker appears at the top of the stairs – the entrance to the church is below street level. Diemel’s colleague immediately goes to help her. By the time he has collapsed the walker, she’s realised she made a mistake: “Oh, this isn’t where I need to be at all.”
The funeral director wants to know if the pallbearers are willing to walk behind the hearse for a while when the coffin is back in the car at the end of the service. “I’d like that”, she says. The young men nod.
Rewind to an hour earlier, when there was a brief moment of panic at the Maastricht office of Draagkracht, a company that supplies staff for church services, crematoriums and cemeteries. One of the students struggled with the early start today. As Diemel and his colleagues are having coffee around nine o’clock, branch manager Bas Veldhuizen calls the latecomer. The student picks up. “He’s on his way.” They’re not expected in Hoensbroek for another hour, but Veldhuizen is clearly unamused. “Let him tidy up the clothes afterwards.” White dress shirts, black shoes in a wide variety of sizes, hats, long coats, trousers, ‘modern’ grey suits, socks, gloves: it can all be found in the office. The office even has a shoe polishing machine and a coffin to practise with. Hair gel, deodorant and mouthwash are always available in case staff ran out at home.
The name of the company is Draagkracht, literally ‘bearing capacity’, but the job involves much more than just pallbearing. At church services (the company also provides staff for cremation ceremonies) they prepare a table with folders and pens and a condolence book, hand out in memoriam cards, take up the collection, etc. At the cemetery, they accompany the coffin and lower it into the grave. “That’s quite a difficult part”, says Diemel. “Most graves are fine, but sometimes you have to twist and turn or really brace yourself to keep your footing. It’s important not to let the rope slip through your fingers, but use a hand-by-hand technique. Yesterday we were at a cemetery in a forest near the village Sint Odiliënberg. The family was present while we lowered the coffin, so it really had to go well. And it did.”
A question people keep asking him: isn’t his side job a little macabre or, at the very least, odd? He shakes his head. “On the contrary, it’s very rewarding work.” Is it different every time? “Yes, I think so. I go to various places and it’s always an intimate thing to experience, people saying goodbye to a loved one.”
Previously a competitive rower, Diemel is an experienced pallbearer: he has worked at two hundred funeral services. He found the job via his rowing club, Saurus. “A long time ago, Draagkracht wanted to establish a branch in Limburg and contacted Saurus to recruit pallbearers. Rowers can synchronously pick up and carry a boat.” By now, it’s no longer just Saurus members who work for this branch of the company. Draagkracht doesn’t exclusively employ men, either. Height and strength don’t matter all that much. Branch manager Veldhuizen: “But we do ask employees for their height, because we try to take it into account. It’s not easy for a tall and a short person to carry a coffin together.”
The clock in the Maastricht office says it’s almost nine thirty. An Anita Meyer song is playing in the background: Why tell me, why tell me, why do I pray. The crew is complete, they put on their long coats and get into the car. Without the practice coffin, of course – it was used only for the photograph.