Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The distinguished boxer will have some distinguished pallbearers for his memorial processional, including actor Will Smith alongside Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, fellow champions in the ring. But what is this pall that they will be bearing?
Today, pallbearers carry the coffin at a funeral. But historically, they held the four corners of a pall, or the cloth spread over the coffin. This tradition originated in the Middle Ages, apparently, though the custom of covering the dead is ancient. According to some accounts, pallbearers held the pall in place as other men or a vehicle bore the casket to a church. Others indicate pallbearers carried the pall into a church and ceremonially touched or held it during a service.
The funeral pall has been draping the English language since the 1400s but the word is documented in Old English as pæll. This pall originally referred to a rich cloth, often purple, that robed high-ranking persons or covered a church altar, where they are still in use today.
Old English derives its pæll from the Latin pallium, a “covering” or “cloak.” In Ancient Rome, pallia, to use the Latin plural, first referred to the cloaks worn by Greek philosophers, later by Christians who eschewed the native toga. Latin’s pallium is related to palla, a “robe,” “cloak,” or “mantle,” but the ultimate origin is obscure.
By the 1500s, we see pall transferred from rich robes and altar cloths to general coverings. By the 1700s, the cloth’s associations with funerals cast a pall of darkness and gloominess over the word. Pale, pallor, and appalled are unrelated; these derive from the Latin pallēre, “to be pale,” whose Indo-European root means, oddly enough, “dark-colored.”
The Oxford English Dictionary specifically attests pallbearer by 1707, while the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes the word shifted to its current sense of coffin-bearing by the early 1900s.
Muhammad Ali’s passing definitely casts its pall, but his legacy will need no bearer: It stands on it own, like a champion raising his gloves in victory.