During thirty-five years of ordained ministry, I have participated in more than my fair share of funerals and funeral processions. After the service, the director typically leads a procession of vehicles to the cemetery, followed by the clergy and pall bearers. However, I have discovered that traditions differ in various communities.
When I lived in Chattooga County in the early 1990s, one funeral home followed the disconcerting practice of putting preachers at the head of the motorcade. Oftentimes, I would drive slowly into the cemetery, frantically searching for the correct tent. In my nightmares, I occasionally buried members in the wrong plot—a practice parishioners do not appreciate.
Funeral directors always ask the participants in a procession to turn on their car lights. A few homes still attach magnetic flags to the tops of the cars, signifying which vehicles belong to the convoy.
Generally, a law enforcement vehicle will lead the line with lights flashing. Sometimes several police cars will leapfrog one another to upcoming intersections. Many urban areas have discontinued the practice of providing a police escort. In other areas, a traditional motorcade is a thing of the past.
I am always touched when oncoming traffic pulls off the road and stops for a funeral procession. When I was young, I asked my mother why people did this. She said, “Years ago the dirt roads were so narrow that people had to pull over. It is also a sign of respect for the departed.”
I’m not certain this explanation accurately represents the historical origins of the practice; but I do know that the people involved in a procession truly appreciate this simple courtesy extended by others.
I thought pulling over for a funeral procession was a universal practice. However, conversations with folk “who ain’t from around here, you know” have convinced me otherwise. This may be a unique, Southern convention. One person I spoke with who had the misfortune of growing up north of the Mason-Dixon Line could not even begin to grasp the concept.
I also assumed that Georgia law mandated vehicles pull to the side of the road for a funeral procession. After further research, however, I cannot find this anywhere in our state’s traffic laws.
There are other regulations on the books about funeral processions. For example, vehicles in a funeral procession generally have the right of way at any intersection. It is illegal to interrupt or pass a procession, too.
It is also a fineable offense to turn on your headlights and pretend to be part of the funeral procession in order to run traffic lights and make good time. (Under the heading of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck,” you KNOW this means that someone has attempted this in the past!)
I would offer one word of caution. I have witnessed motorists who were a bit TOO enthusiastic about stopping for a funeral procession. On one occasion, I watched two cars collide after the lead vehicle slammed on its brakes to stop for a funeral. Other times I have witnessed vehicles veer off the road without bothering to slow down first.
I find it a touching tradition for motorists to stop their vehicles in a final gesture of respect for the departed and his or her family. Even if the person in the hearse is a total stranger, we have shared this life together. Another’s death is a reminder of our common end.
John Donne wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
I would paraphrase Donne’s words to say: “Slow down and pull off the road when you see a funeral procession approaching. The deceased and the family deserve your respect. Perhaps someday someone else will extend the same courtesy to you and yours.”
No one is an island—we are connected in ways beyond our imaginings. So we are called to show some respect whenever someone else arrives at our shared destination ahead of us.