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A Guide To Funeral Processions - History, Tradition & Etiquette

Attending a funeral service can be one of the most challenging ceremonial functions one will ever participate in. Experiencing intense feelings of grief and loss is a natural response to the death of a loved one. It is not unusual for the stress associated with this to cause confusion around the funeral service, and sometimes you may need a little extra help to navigate it.

Funeral processions, in and of itself can be confusing and daunting whether you are part of one or encounter one during traffic. Compounding the stress that comes with understanding funeral and procession etiquette is grieving the death of a loved one. It is often difficult to know what to do, and you might find yourself questioning how they operate around local traffic laws and how not to interfere with one. This article will share the fundamentals of funeral procession etiquette that will help you navigate them in the future.

What Is A Funeral Procession?

A funeral procession is a convoy of the deceased’s family members, friends, and colleagues who are guided by the hearse from the funeral home to the burial site. It is a significant part of the overall funeral ceremony, and it allows the family and friends to spend their last moments with their loved one on the way to the final resting place.

A funeral procession is comprised of vehicles or attendees walking by foot, beginning at the funeral home and ending at the cemetery or crematorium. Naturally, the purpose of a funeral procession is to give a final goodbye to the deceased and provide them with a dignified burial. 

They are held directly after the funeral reception and takes place directly before laying the deceased in their final resting place.

The planning of the funeral reception can be stressful to navigate particularly when it comes to planning for your loved one. If you feel overwhelmed, you certainly are not alone. Please see our comprehensive guide if you would like some guidance on where to start and what to expect.

What Is The History Behind Funeral Processions?

The history of funeral processions can be dated back to ancient civilizations. Among the most prominent practices were found in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome. 

ANCIENT EGYPTIANS

Ancient Egyptians created the tradition of funeral processions, and their early rituals carried unique meaning and purpose. Also known as motorcades, processions started back in Ancient Egypt.

The person responsible for arranging the procession was referred to as the "kher-heb”. Historically referred to as "mummy," the deceased would be placed on a sledge to be pulled by men attending the funeral or oxen. The procession included family members, friends, servants, and professional mourners.

It was an expected tradition for men to attend the procession unshaven and women to participate with torn clothing and dirt on their heads, which represented grief and mourning for their loved one. It was not uncommon for "professional female mourners" to be hired with the sole purpose of portraying a grief-stricken family member of the deceased.

Also in attendance were servants whose single function was to walk behind the mourning family and friends to carry any items to be laid to rest with the deceased.


ANCIENT GREEKS

The Ancient Greeks were also known for their unique funeral processions, previously known as the Ekphora. The Ekphora typically took place slightly before dawn.

The deceased would be laid to rest on a bier, carried by family members or hired pallbearers, and followed by family, friends, and service members.

Traditionally, the journey from the place of worship to the burial ground would be filled with attendees singing as a way of expressing feelings of grief over the death of their loved ones. Once they reached the burial grounds, the deceased would be placed in a decorated tree and designed larnax or box.

It was customary from here to either cremate the dead or place the box on a stone or wooden slab and laid to rest.


ANCIENT ROMAN

The Ancient Roman funerals were a celebration of the deceased passage between life and death. It was believed that they needed to provide a respectful and proper ceremony for the dead to prevent any wicked spirits from rising from the underworld. 

Roman processions differed based on the social status of the dead. An ordinary member of society would be given a quiet yet peaceful procession. On the contrary, if the deceased had wealth, they would be given an elegant and lengthy procession with bands and hired servants.

The procession was one of five parts to the overall funeral service and carried significant weight and meaning. As is customary in modern-day funerals, the more wealth the deceased had in their waking life, the more lavish the funeral processions.

Similar to Ancient Egypt processions, the ancient Romans would hire employed procession actors who were traditionally women and were employed to participate in the group of mourners. The greater the number of professional mourners, the greater the amount of wealth the deceased had. 

The deceased would be transported in a bier (a bed-like tray) during the procession followed by family and friends. They would make their way to the burial site to lay the deceased to rest.

How Different Religions Have Funeral Processions & Their Meanings

Funeral traditions and ceremonies vary widely among many different religions, cultures, and practices. All sharing the same general purpose, which is to lay their loved one to rest and prepare them for the afterlife-customary rituals differ widely.

HINDUISM

Hinduismis ranked the third-largest religion worldwide, with nearly one billion followers. They are known for their stringent traditional funeral processions. The Hindu faith is centered around reincarnation, believing that the deceased's soul will be reborn into a new life. 

In more recent times, and places outside of India, where it is most commonly practiced, the domestic traditions of decorating the body and offering rice balls occur at the family home or funeral service instead of the cremation site.

The pallbearers, who are male family members, carry the casket from the house to the hearse, and everyone follows in separate vehicles to the crematorium. The pallbearers then carry the casket from the hearse into the chapel at the crematorium.

In some cases, the family will travel farther to spread the deceased's ashes in a holy river. However, if they choose not to do so, the ashes will be scattered in the sea or nearby river.

ISLAM

Islam is the second-largest religion, with about 1.91 billion practicing Muslims worldwide. The procession traditions were created by the Prophet, subsequently urging Muslims to partake and adopt such customs.

In Islam, a funeral procession is a virtuous act that typically involves participation from other Muslims. Traditions that the Prophet began urged Muslims to participate in the continuation of funeral procession.

It is believed among Muslims that by following the funeral procession traditions, praying over the body, and attending the burial, they will receive quirats (rewards) to put them in good favor with Allah. 

Funeral processions of notable figures in the Islamic society would attract large crowds because many people would want to honor the deceased. Like Ancient Roman funerals, the number of people attending a funeral service can be considered a mark of social standing.

The more well-known and prominent the deceased was in their waking life, the more likely people attended. In some cases, the governor may insist on leading the funeral procession for men of high prominence, even if this is against the deceased's family's wishes.

Muslim funeral processions may also attract people of other religions if the deceased were a well-known societal figure.

It is customary that only Muslim faith attendees are designated pallbearers, with attendees of other religions following alongside. Islamic funeral processions have been viewed as similar to those in late antiquity Alexandria, being that the whole city would partake in the procession.

CHRISTIANITY

Christianity is currently the world's largest religious faith, with over 2.38 billion Christians in 157 countries and territories. Christian funeral rites are to be meticulously followed when a ceremony is held.

Historically, the funeral procession would commence at the deceased's home ending at the church burial ground.  Since the burial took place on the church property, there was no need for a procession after the funeral service.

The pallbearers who carried the casket followed other attendees who were holding candles and incense. The incense is a sign of honor and respect for the deceased.

In modern days, the burial grounds for the deceased are in cemeteries at a separate location from the church. Therefore the funeral procession commences at the funeral home and ends at the final place of rest. This switch was mainly due to the religious influence over time.

Over time, the customs of the funeral procession have evolved. Presently a hearse is used to convey the body to the gravesite. Male family members and friends are most commonly the individuals who carry the casket.​​

BUDDHISM

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion, with over 507 million Buddhists worldwide. The Buddhist faith was founded by Siddhartha Gautama ("the Buddha") more than 2,500 years ago in India. The Buddhist funeral is simplistic yet sacred and respected, generally taking place within one week after death.

Many Buddhist funerals are not held in a temple; instead, they occur in a funeral home. The viewing lasts one night, generally the evening before the funeral, and typically includes an atmosphere filled with candlelight and license.

The funeral procession takes place directly after the funeral service has ended and once the casket is sealed. The coffin is then conveyed to the funeral hall or the crematorium.

It is customary and expected for family members and mourners to help carry the casket to the hearse. They will then prepare for the procession and drive behind the hearse in preparation for the final goodbye.

SHINTO

Shinto is an early age religion, dating back to prehistoric times, and is classified as an East Asian religion that originated out of Japan. It is regarded as Japan's indigenous religion and as a nature religion. Currently, the Shinto religion has over 3.4 million Shintoists.

A vast majority of Japanese funerals combine Shinto and Buddhist traditions as they are said to complement each other. The funeral service involves twenty steps of funeral rituals and commands that are followed to prepare the deceased's spirit for the afterlife spirit world.

The sixteenth step is the funeral procession, where the body is conveyed to the cemetery or crematorium. In the Shinto religion, this step is referred to as the "soretsu," the funeral parade of roses. 

Following the end of the funeral service, a sword is placed on the coffin and banners around it. This tradition is followed, so the deceased can know it is time to move on to the afterlife spirit world. The family and friends are then directed to meet at the gravesite for the final three steps of the service, where the deceased is then put to rest.

JUDAISM

Judaism is the tenth-largest religion worldwide. It is the world's oldest monotheistic religion and was established among ancient Hebrews roughly 4,000 years ago. In Israel, the funeral service is traditionally at the cemetery, and in America and Canada, it is common to have it either at the funeral home, cemetery or in rare cases at the synagogue.

In the case where the funeral takes place at the cemetery, there is no need for a funeral procession as the deceased has already been conveyed to the destination where they will be laid to rest.

In the event that the funeral service takes place at a funeral home or a synagogue, a procession is necessary. Once the service comes to an end, the deceased's family will be the first to leave. From here, the casket will be removed by designated pallbearers, and they will proceed to convey it into the hearse.

It is customary to allow both men and women to be pallbearers but with one exception; they could not be mourners of the deceased, otherwise known as aveylim.

From there, the funeral procession begins. Attendees, family, and friends follow the hearse and make their way to the cemetery. The funeral procession in the Jewish faith is also an important mitzvah when accompanying the deceased to their final resting place.

Funeral Procession Etiquette

Whether you are a part of a funeral procession or you find yourself in the middle of one while in traffic, it can be stressful if you are unaware of the protocols and how to respect them. 

WHAT TO DO IN A FUNERAL PROCESSION

For funeral attendees, protocols are typically explained at the funeral home by the staff. Knowing what to do in a funeral procession before the services starts is necessary to make sure everything operates smoothly.

When you arrive at the funeral service, staff will welcome you and direct you where to park your vehicle. If you do not plan on being part of the procession, you will be required to park your car in a separate designated area. This process ensures that all vehicles are parked side-by-side in the same setup they will be leaving the service in.

Funeral procession road rules are to be followed precisely to ensure no delays or issues arise. When the funeral service has ended, you will be directed to return to your vehicle to prepare for departure to the burial grounds. 

All vehicles will leave at the same time and will be driving bumper-to-bumper behind one another. This is to prevent vehicles that are not part of the precession from breaking up the line. All vehicles will be moving at the same speed, generally between 30mph-55mph, which will fluctuate depending on the speed limit of the roads and highways they are on. 

Here Are A Few Essential Points To Consider

Arrival Time

It is customary for family and close friends to lead to procession at the front of the line, so arriving at the funeral service 45 minutes to 1-hour before service is recommended.  When the funeral is over, the officiate, the family, and the casket will leave first.

Stay In Line

It is essential to stay close behind the vehicle ahead of you and not break up the line. If you are confronted with a red light or stop sign, you are granted permission to go through them so long as the lead car went through it already.

The Lead & End Car

The vehicle at the front of the line, known as the "lead car," will typically have white funeral flags on it and will have its hazard lights on. The lead car will typically be a sedan or limousine with immediate family members of the deceased.

The lead car is expected to obey traffic signals at all intersections; therefore, they are required to stop at red traffic lights and stop signs. However, once passed the green light, all following cars are to follow and are exempt from stopping at red lights or stop signs.

At the end of the procession line, the vehicle will have two funeral flags and keep their hazard lights on, which communicates to the cars behind them that this is the end.

Funeral Magnet

Funeral attendants will provide all vehicles with a sticker or magnet that reads "Funeral," This is to be placed on the left side of the dashboard window. It may also be placed on the hood of the vehicle above the driver. Practices differ depending on the funeral home. If there are many vehicles in the procession, every second or third vehicle will be given this sticker or magnet.

Turn On Your Headlings

Drivers will be directed to switch on their headlights, even if it is daytime. This is another way to communicate to other vehicles that they are part of a funeral procession.

Cemetery Protocol

Once you arrive at the cemetery, maintain the single-file line and park your vehicle beside the vehicle ahead of you. Appropriate parking at the graveyard is imperative as it is designed to prevent blockage for other cars.

There should be a cemetery attendant to direct you where to park upon arrival. Pallbearers will carry the casket to the gravesite. Once that service is done, you are free to leave.

It is not uncommon to feel nervous and confused about how to adhere to funeral procession etiquette. If you have any questions, ask a funeral attendant for clarity. The funeral service in and of itself is stressful for attendees.

Many cultures and religions have their own etiquette expectations that must be followed and to show respect. For a step-by-step guide on how to follow the standard wake and etiquette guidelines, please see our comprehensive guide.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A FUNERAL PROCESSION

The most important thing to remember if you encounter a funeral procession is to be respectful. All vehicles in the procession have the right of way; therefore, all other vehicles are expected to be courteous and allow them to drive undisturbed.

A few other points to consider are:

  • Yield to the right of way for a vehicle procession you encounter at an intersection. You can proceed when the last vehicle has gone through. The last vehicle will typically have funeral flags on it and will have its hazard lights on.
  • Do not attempt to cut through a procession because this will break up the line, and fines may be a penalty depending on the state you are in.
  • Do not attempt to pass the procession line on the right side unless it is in the far left lane.
  • Do not honk or do anything to make the drives feel uncomfortable. Remember, they are part of a funeral service, so be tolerant and courteous.

Are Military Or Police Funeral Processions Different?

Funeral processions for members of the military or law enforcement police officers are treated differently. Because these brave men and women take an oath to serve and protect their communities and their nation, they are honored with a large and ceremonious public display for the procession.

MILITARY FUNERAL PROCESSIONS

Members of the military are some of the highest honored members of society because they put their lives on the line protecting the people and integrity of their nation from domestic and external threats. Because of this, military funeral processions are intended to reflect the nation's collective appreciation and respect.

Prior to the procession, the media will be informed of the specific route, date, and time to relay this information to the public ahead of time.  The service takes place in a funeral home, and when it comes to an end, the designated pallbearers will carry the casket to the exiting doors. The casket is then placed in the hearse, and when the funeral director closes the doors, it signals that the procession is to begin.

The order of the funeral procession, which comprises attendees on foot and in vehicles, is as follows:

On Foot - Escort Commander; Guidon; Color Guard

Followed By Vehicle - Honorary Pallbearers; Clergy; Hearse With The Casket; Next Of Kin (Family); Family & Friends

Immediately after all attendees are in their designated places, the procession to the gravesite begins. Upon arrival, the casualty assistant officer (CAO) positions himself between the chaplain and the head of the gravesite. The pallbearers form and remove the casket from the conveyance.

Military Funeral Procession Things To Consider

Customarily, there are military escorts or first responder escorts that take part in these processions. They tend to be longer processions, and sometimes roads or routes are closed for some time to let them pass through.

They sometimes need to obtain special permits or permission from counties to use the military escorts or first responder escorts. Often times, there are usually onlookers alongside the road in honor of the deceased.

Honoring our fallen heroes is a great way to show support and appreciation for the dedication and sacrifices these men and women make daily. To become informed on how you can show your support, here is a comprehensive guide that will give you tips. 

POLICE FUNERAL PROCESSIONS

Police officers take an oath to serve and protect their community and repeatedly put their lives on the line to ensure ongoing public safety. By virtue of this, police officer funeral processions reflect the collective public appreciation and honor, whether their passing happened in the line of duty or off duty.

Funeral processions for police officers regularly include officers from the local and neighboring communities as a sign of solidarity. Therefore, processions may include up to a few hundred cars.

A designated procession officer is made in charge of planning out the route from the place the funeral home to the cemetery.

This information is shared with the public information officer (PIO) and the media to ensure the public is informed of the route and intersection closures. The route will commonly include driving past the deceased's department and downtown to allow the local populace to participate in the ceremony.

The overall assembly of the funeral procession includes many different members of the police unit, including:

Police Escorts -  (State and Federal); Police escorts on motorcycles and cruisers; Other members of the police department

Colour Guards - Affected Police Department; Mutual Aid Departments; Local and State Police; Other Members of Police Department Color Guards; Fire Department and EMS color guards

Pipes and Drum Corps - Dignitaries; City Officials; State Officials; Clergy

Police officer funeral processions differ in size, some being small and others being large. The size will dictate a few changes, with the general assembly being as follows:

Car 1; Staff Vehicles; Caisson (Pallbearers); Family Limos; Family With Chief; Marching Contingent; Affected Police Department; Other Uniformed Personnel; (Four Wide - Dress right Dress); PD Retirees; Local Police Departments; Mutual Aid Departments; All Other Vehicles.

The funeral service for members of the military and police officers is an event that can be shared with family, community members, and neighboring communities. It is a time to come together to thank and honor the men and women who keep our communities and nation safe. 

Remembering Your Loved One

The funeral procession is the last opportunity for the loved ones to say goodbye. Saying goodbye to a deceased loved one is unimaginably difficult and can cause life-long grief. For some, it can be helpful to carry a piece jewelry or keepsake in memory of their loved one. 

Keeping a part of them with you, whether as photo engraved jewelry, cremation jewelry for ashes, or thumbprint jewelry, having that piece of our loved one can bring comfort in the grieving journey.

This guide is a comprehensive guide with many keepsake selections that can help you in your grieving journey. 

Funeral Procession Frequently Asked Questions

Who should ride in the funeral cars?

Funerals have different protocols and expectations depending on the culture, religion, and traditions. Generally, the deceased's family members will ride in the funeral car, albeit there are no strict rules about who is granted allowance to ride in it.

Is it illegal to join a funeral procession if you are not part of the funeral?

All local jurisdictions have their own road regulations for funeral processions. Most commonly, there are rules that state you cannot cut into or join a funeral procession.

Is it disrespectful to overtake a hearse?

It is disrespectful to overtake a hearse while it is in procession. If it is on a multilane road and the procession is in any of the right lanes, you can pass it on the left side.

If the hearse is not part of a funeral procession and without a casket in the back, you may treat it like any other vehicle on the road, abiding by traffic laws.

How many cars can be in a procession?

There are no restrictions around how many vehicles can be in a procession.

Why do cops sometimes lead a funeral procession?

There are a few reasons why in some cases, cops lead a funeral procession.

If there are many attendees at the funeral and the procession consists of many vehicles, cops may be necessary to help keep traffic moving safely and without incident and delay. If the funeral is high profile and may be a target for public attack, cops will attend the procession to prevent harm and keep the peace. Some families may choose to include a motorcade of law enforcement by their own discretion. 

Why do funeral processions go so slow?

Funeral processions go slow for a few reasons. It is to display respect for the deceased. It also helps to ensure all vehicles maintain their close distance from one another.

Are you supposed to pull over for a funeral procession?

You do not need to pull over for a funeral procession. Instead, yield to the funeral procession and do not cut them off. This can cost you a ticket and is impolite to members of the procession.

What lights do you turn on in a funeral procession?

If you are part of a funeral procession, you are to turn on your headlights to signal to other commuters that you are part of the procession.

Are there state laws on funeral processions?

There are state laws but only in certain states. Some states have no state laws governing funeral processions while othes do not. Check with your state to stay informed and up-to-date with any laws you should be aware of.

What is a funeral cortege?

A funeral cortege is another name used to refer to a funeral procession. Both comprising of family and friends being led by a hears carrying their loved one, being taken to its final resting place.

Lining Up To Wish Them Farewell

Funeral processions can be confusing for the attendees and for anyone who is faced with one in traffic. It is expected that during times of extreme grief while dealing with the loss of a loved one, partaking in a funeral procession can undoubtedly be stress-inducing.

In saying this, funeral attendants are more than happy to help guide you and make the process smoother, so asking for assistance can make a difference in your experience. Funerals are always difficult for everyone involved and can assuredly be stressful to navigate.

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August 19, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus