Funeral Processions and Other Reminders We Don’t Want

Funeral Procession by Ellis Wilson (1950), Aaron Douglas Collection, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University

Yesterday afternoon, while driving home from the dry cleaners, I was stopped at a major intersection by the longest funeral procession I’ve ever seen crossing in front of me.  Fortunately for everyone involved, I arrived just in time to see the hearse leading the procession go by so I understood what was happening and relaxed into the wait.  But I’m afraid that if I hadn’t seen it, being in my usual hurry, I probably would have missed all the other, subtler cues and, since I needed to turn right into the very lane all the mourners were using, would have done something stupid like trying to cut in.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a funeral cavalcade that I’ve apparently grown fuzzy on the signs and protocols.  I mean sure, I drove in one during my hospice years, but that’s different.  I knew perfectly well why all the cars were lined up and all I had to do was follow the one in front of me.  But encountering one randomly out on the road required a little more awareness on my part; first, an ability to recognize the nature of the event, and second, a correct response.  Without the hearse, I’m pretty sure I would have failed at both.

Once upon a time I used to know that the cars in a funeral procession all have their headlights on, even during the afternoon on a bright sunny day.  (Check.)  And that funeral attendees generally dress up in crisp, dark colored, Sunday-best clothing, even in the middle of the week.  (Check.)  And that all other vehicles not in the procession are supposed to stop and wait until the the last car has passed, no matter what color the light is. (Check.) And if I somehow missed all these other clues, then the motorcycle cop sitting in the middle of the intersection aggressively waving his arm at me should have dispelled any remaining confusion.  (I wasn’t going to go.  I was just inching.)

It must have taken a full three or four minutes for the full procession to pass by, and as I sat there and witnessed the rolling continuum of face after silent, somber face looking forward in their car without smiling or chat, I unexpectedly started to feel the loss of this clearly beloved life myself.  All of a sudden it hit me; a life was now gone.  A LIFE. GONE.

Poof.

And suddenly, there in the middle of my buzzing, mundane, household errands (that noisy rabble of small concerns that are forever hijacking my life) a breath of something ancient and cold blew across my neck…and blessedly woke me up again.

I was glad and grateful for it.

It’s so easy to fall asleep and forget how brief this opportunity is that I have.  To be alive.  With others.  With fingers to touch theirs faces and lips, and a voice to sing with, or whisper, or cry out in pain.  With eyes drenched in moonlight, ears drowning in music, flavors exploding all over my tongue, and a nose wrinkling over a whiff of some faint stink that thankfully passes as quickly as it came.

These are miracles…miracles!…so how in the world do they get eclipsed by a stupid hour of busy tasks I won’t even remember by nightfall, much less at the end of my life?  It’s just weird, how easy it is to take the raw wonder of being alive for granted.  And scary, how forgetting it runs the risk of stranding me in a sad and shallow life.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Later on while thinking about the whole thing, the question hit me.  Why is it that I haven’t seen a funeral procession in so long?  What happened to them all?  Are they really fewer and farther in between?  Is it a tradition that’s fallen from favor?  Here are a few possibilities that sprang to mind:

1)  The rise of cremations and scattering of ashes has become a popular alternative to burial in a cemetery.

2)  Memorial services (as an alternative to the traditional funeral, procession, and graveside ceremony) take less time, offer greater scheduling flexibility, and also pair easily with a cremation choice.

3)  Then there’s the fact that police escorts for funeral processions are being scaled back as municipalities find themselves strapped for cash.

These are all likely reasons to be sure, but I can’t help wondering if there’s something more insidious going on, too.  Over the decades, as a culture, we’ve taken to disguising and hiding the trappings of death as we transfer our attention to the increasing hope of medical cures.

For instance, in spite of the rise in hospice care, the majority of people still die in hospitals.  But think for a moment, how many times have you actually seen a body in there?  Ever wonder why?  It turns out there’s a special fleet of gurneys that hospitals across the nation employ, cleverly designed with a secret compartment where the dead can be tucked away from public view.  Then, when they’re removed from the hospital morgue to funeral homes, they’re generally transferred through low traffic areas and back doors.

So instead of people having to step respectfully aside–momentarily hushed and awed–as a still, sheet-draped form rolls down the hallway in quiet dignity, everyone can instead hurry along uninterrupted, brushing past a seemingly empty cart hiding all evidence that one of the greatest mysteries in existence has just occurred.

Could it be that funeral processions are disappearing for the same reason?  To eliminate unpleasant reminders?  And is this wise?  Do we really want to transform our world into a place where there’s nothing left anymore to wake us up?

I realize that a big part of the reason for hiding death is to spare us the experience of fear, dread, and helplessness that facing it entails.  But really, does anyone think that strategy is working?  It doesn’t seem like we’re less scared.  In fact, it looks like our fear is mounting which, when you think about it, is the more logical outcome.  People are always more frightened by what they can’t see than what they can. Once freed from the tedious burden of hard facts, a fearful imagination usually launches into the stratosphere, heading straight for the heart of the worst possible scenario.  Honestly, I think hiding the fact that people are still dying, thereby stripping us of any chance at familiarity, is actually making things even worse and scaring the bejeezus out of us.

Maybe we’d be better served by slowing down a little, taking a deep breath, and gently lifting the sheet again for a closer look.  Yes, that would be sadder, scarier, and harder to do.

Definitely.

But it would also be braver and more dignified.  Which is who we really are anyway, so why not just do that?

In closing, for those of you who, like me, may be a little sketchy on the correct protocol for funeral processions, here are a few links that might help:

Funeral Procession Traffic Laws

Should You Stop For Funeral Processions?

Right-of-Way of Funeral Processions

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

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4 responses

  1. This seems to me to go to the subject of bearing witness; seeing with our own eyes that people die and that it’s okay. By “lifting the sheet”, as you put it so eloquently, we see with our own eyes that it is possible to come to terms with our losses. In procession, in our Sunday best, we begin the walk away from grief, not to it. What a beautiful thing a Funeral Procession is… it’s very nice… but would it be too much to ask for a Viking Funeral? LOL! Now that would be a send off!

  2. As a letter carrier, I occasionally found my path blocked by a funeral procession. And you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it, but those did become fewer and farther between. But when I did encounter one, two reactions dueled. First, dang, I’m LATE…how can I gently worm my way around/through this inconvenience? Followed immediately by, OMG, someone’s mother,father, uncle, brother, sister, neighbor, friend has left this world and these people are all hurting. I always waited.

    • It’s kind of like shifting between immediate time and old time isn’t it? The urgency of the moment as versus the…what? Sacredness? Silence? Weight?…of the ancient realities. I wonder what our brain waves are doing as we shift back and forth between the two?

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