The Funeral Cortege
Before the arrival of the automobile or motorized funeral coach, the casket was transported by a horse-drawn carriage. Walking solemnly in front of the horse, the undertaker would lead the deceased and mourners in a slow, dignified cortege or ceremonial procession through the community to the church and cemetery. For a brief moment as the cortege went by, strangers would stop, remove their hats or bow their heads out of respect for the deceased and mourners.
Today the funeral cortege still remains an integral part of the funeral service. However, in the larger urban centers, with high traffic volumes and multiple intersections, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for funeral directors to maintain the integrity and safety of this time-honored practice.
The most common funeral cortege occurs after the church or chapel service when the deceased is conveyed to the cemetery for interment. It is also a tradition with many Roman Catholic families to accompany the deceased in a procession from the funeral home to the church.
In the case where the deceased is to be cremated after the church or chapel service, some families choose to have a procession back to the crematorium for a committal service.
It is also quite common for a family to request that the funeral cortege pass by the residence, business or workplace of the deceased or a location where the deceased spent a great deal of recreational or volunteer time such as a soccer field, stadium or a fraternal meeting place. When the cortege reaches the specified location, the funeral director will usually stop the funeral coach in front of it for a short time as a gesture of respect. On some occasions a family member or the funeral director will exit their vehicle and leave a single flower on the sidewalk.
In today’s modern funeral cortege vehicles are arranged by the funeral director in a particular order. The funeral director, accompanied by the clergy, will lead the procession in a vehicle referred to as the lead car of clergy car. In most cases the funeral coach will then follow the lead car with the immediate family and relatives proceeding behind the coach in their own vehicles.
On certain occasion’s limousines, flower cars and vehicles for pallbearers are also used in the procession. Families who prefer not to drive and would like to stay together may choose to be driven in a limousine. Available in various sizes, the largest can hold up to ten people. Utility vans, which can hold as many as seven people, are often used to transport pallbearers. When the seats are removed, it can also be used to convey dozens of floral arrangements to the church or cemetery.
Regardless of the number of vehicles in a cortege, the correct protocol is to place the immediate family, whether they are driving their own vehicle or being driven in a limousine, directly behind the deceased. Additional vehicles such as a flower car or pallbearer van are then placed between the lead car and funeral coach. Large vehicles, like buses, which are sometimes used by the military or veterans, are considered too overbearing at the front of the procession and are, therefore, placed near the end.
Some processions are personalized. When a firefighter died the casket was conveyed to the cemetery on the back of a fire truck. Similarly, after the death of a truck driver a group of co-workers drove their trucks in the cortege, stopping at the entrance to the cemetery to blow their horns in tribute as the funeral coach went past them.
There are a number of ways a funeral director can identify a funeral cortege. The most popular is to use small flags or signs with the word “funeral” printed on them in bold letters. The base of the flags and signage is magnetized, allowing them to be easily attached and removed from the vehicle. Traditionally, two flags are placed on either side of the hood of both the lead car and funeral coach. Individual flags are sometimes placed on the hoods of family vehicles and every tenth car, particularly when there is a long procession that has to travel a great distance. Signage with the word “funeral” on it, used mostly in other parts of Canada, is placed on either side of the lead car.
Driving with headlights on during the daylight hours was once reserved for processions. But now all new vehicles are required to have daytime lights. To compensate for this, it is recommended that drivers turn their headlights on full (high beam). Others choose to engage their emergency flashing lights.
Another way of identifying a funeral cortege is by using caution lights. Until 1997 most funeral homes used amber lights, which are also used by utility companies, tow trucks and other motorists.
Today, purple dome lights and mini light bars are available exclusively for funeral processions and are not used for any other purpose in North America. They are very distinctive, and historically, purple is a color associated with the funeral ritual. Most funeral directors use mini light bars on the lead car and dome lights on other vehicles in large processions.
How safe is a funeral cortege? There are several factors that may jeopardize the safety of a procession. Intersections controlled by stop signs or traffic lights present problems with cross traffic and the “platoon effect.” This is when drivers at the end of the procession exceed the speed limit in an attempt to keep up. Failure to stop at intersections controlled by stop signs and traffic lights is an unsafe practice that has resulted in accidents.
In Canada, funeral corteges have no legal right to proceed through an intersection against a red light or through a stop sign without first coming to a full stop. As a driver you can be held liable for damages caused by failing to stop. There are, however, at least three U.S. states that have passed legislation granting funeral processions the right of way.
What safety measures are taken? It is recommended that drivers of lead cars travel at least 10 km/h under the speed limit. Most will try to maintain a constant speed between 20 to 30 km/h. Waiting for a full green light will likely allow the whole procession to pass through the intersection. For long processions a police escort is often used, particularly in larger urban areas. As noted above, clearly identifying the cortege will make it much easier for motorists. Reviewing the procession route with other drivers prior to the start of the procession is also helpful.
Unlike the days when everyone along the procession route would stop and take off their cap or bow their heads when the horse and carriage passed by, out of respect for the deceased, there is a noticeable lack of respect prevalent in today’s society for the funeral cortege. Heavier traffic volumes, busier lifestyles and younger motorists who are not aware of this funeral etiquette, all combine to diminish this important ritual.
To quote the managing editor of the Sarnia Observer, Carl De Gurse, “We will lose something valuable if we lose traffic respect for funeral processions. When we pull over and give our right of way to mourners, we give the gift of compassion for their grief. Because the gift comes from strangers, it means much more.”