One More Cherished Tradition Seems To Be Vanishing

Todd Van Beck's picture

Here and there, now and then over the years I have been privy, and been exposed to the contemporary idea that funeral processions need to be eliminated, and the anti-funeral procession people seem to have a variety of arguments to support such a movement.

In fact I just finished reading that in Gulf Port funeral processions are limited to five vehicles.  No question about it, in today’s society funeral processions are difficult – well, they seem to be in the great metropolitan cities anyway.  

I find it fascinating that people can easily drive 90 mph and maintain a distance of five feet or less between vehicles, but in the instance of a funeral procession the same drivers going 35 mph can easily have ½ a mile distance between cars.  I always took the position with drivers in funeral processions, as I did with pall bearers, that I must assume they had no clue as to how to proceed and behave.

Yes it seems that funeral processions are a nuisance, and add to this that many really nice people, really friendly people when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle experience the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomena.  The attitude of friendliness and kindness seems to just “fly out the window” (pardon the stupid pun).

Now add to this that really nice human beings like to honk their horns, give non-verbal communications with their middle finger, yell, wave, shout, and literally try to push into the funeral procession and I guess I can see why government officials are saying ENOUGH!  

I was told the other day that I ought not to admit to being old, out of touch and ancient anymore, and I guess my counselor was right; hell, there’s nothing I can do about how old I am.  However I can remember, not too many years ago, when people even in the great metropolitan cities pulled their cars over, got out, put their hands over their hearts, and here’s one – TOOK OFF THEIR HATS when they encountered a funeral procession.  Don’t see that much anymore unless you are fortunate enough to live and work in the less complicated areas, such as the country, the small hamlets, the salt of the earth type places, the places where mutual respect for life and death is alive and well.  Those places are out there and interestingly the town officials in those pastoral, peaceful places have not felt the need to abolish funeral processions, and yes there are still people to will take the time and effort to get out of their vehicles, put their hands over their hearts, and TAKE THEIR HATS OFF – I personally approve of that type of behavior.

I fear that those type places are also vanishing from our midst.

Without question the police escorts, anyway the ones I have worked with over the years, are excellent.  They really tend to business.  Yet even with these efforts the anti-funeral procession people argue the powerful positions of traffic safety, traffic jams, motorist inconvenience, unnecessary slow downs, accidents and the like.

I suspect that when this issue raises its head in most communities the individual funeral directors stand up and try to explain the absolute value in funeral processions – I mean the procession is as ancient a human activity as anything in recorded history.  I suspect that funeral directors are stepping up to the plate and offering to take their funeral processions on a different route, than to lead the entire group up the acceleration ramp and try to stay together on a major congested messed up interstate.  I hope this is happening, because if the funeral director does not show up at the city council meeting, does not stand up and be heard, I fear that the future of the cherished funeral procession could well be in jeopardy.  

Funerals have already gone from being a 2-3 day affair, to now a 2-3 hour affair.  Please omit flowers seems to have taken a new life again.  Fewer people seem to be attending actual funeral services.  Fewer people seem to be showing up at wakes, fewer people are embalming, fewer graves are being sold, and now funeral processions are being fiddled with.

I will admit that it is much easier on everybody to not have to fiddle lining up a funeral procession, not battling traffic, and just meeting everybody where the disposition will take place – much easier. 

It must be another sign of the times.  However I would like to suggest that there remains deep value in the symbol of the funeral procession and there are indeed ways to hold on to that value without legislating them out of existence.

A former student of mine, Ted Reese from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ran into this precise issue in 1995.  The following letters to the editor were published in the PATRIOT-NEWS.

Letter One:  The complaint


Watching a long line of cars in a funeral procession moving uninterrupted through two traffic signal changes while endless bumper to bumper traffic is forced to a standstill, the observer wonders when society will get around to abolishing the custom that is inappropriate in these times of much road activity.

Besides, a motorized hearse rushing 40-50 M.P.H. to dispose a dead person’s body, does not seem to possess an aura of respect and dignity.



Letter Two:  The funeral director's response


Mr. Charles Zyk of Harrisburg was delayed by a funeral procession recently, and it made him angry enough to write (Letters, March 24).  Yes, yielding to a funeral procession can be a frustrating, aggravating thing, especially in today’s high speed, fast forward world.

Although it may seem practical to abolish the custom of reverently accompanying a loved one (someone’s mother, father, sibling or child) to the cemetery, I ‘m concerned by the moral and ethical implications.  Indeed, the reality of death would be so much easier to accept if we could find more ways to ignore it and simply “dispose,” as he says, of a human body.

It has been said that the way a society cares for its dead is indicative of its respect for the living, and I am privileged to hold a license that allows me to serve the public by caring for the dead.  Sometimes, I have to hold up traffic to do so, forcing the public to take notice that a life has been lived and is now ended.

So, I offer my apologies, on behalf of my colleagues, to anyone who is delayed by a funeral procession today, and I suggest that others take a moment (while sitting in traffic?) to wonder who may be riding in the back of that hearse.  It may be someone you knew.



I admired Ted greatly for his stance and courage, and made me feel proud he was a former student of this grumpy old undertaker.

If we do not stand up for the value and purpose of the funeral, who will?

One last question:  Are we finding new ways to ignore death?  And is the abolishment of the funeral procession in reality another example?