What is a Catafalque?

Lincoln Catafalque
The Lincoln Catafalque has been used for every state funeral in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda since its construction in 1865. Photo © Architect of the Capitol

A catafalque is the structure on which a casket or coffin containing the body of a deceased individual rests -- usually during the funeral ceremonies or services held for a notable individual, such as when a U.S. president lies in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Typically constructed of wood or metal, a catafalque's primary function is purely to support the weight of the casketed individual and to elevate it off of the ground.

That said, the catafalque's utilitarian structure is typically concealed through the use of draped fabric and other decorations appropriate to the setting and nature of its use. The "Lincoln Catafalque" pictured above, for instance, was constructed of basic pine boards after President Abraham's assassination in 1865 but covered in black fabric to better suit the nature of the occasion.

The modern English term catafalque arose around 1640 from the Italian word "catafalco," meaning scaffold, and derives ultimately from the (vulgar) Latin word "catafalicum."

Because of its similar function, a catafalque is also referred to as a casket bier sometimes. Generally, however, a catafalque comprises a larger, more-ornate platform than a bier and, as mentioned above, usually features in the funeral ceremonies/services of notable individuals.

Additional Reading:
What is a Casket?
What is a Coffin?

U.S. Presidential Funeral Traditions

"catafalque (n.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved August 28, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=catafalque

Continue Reading