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Funeral Cortege Etiquette: Follow That Hearse

hearse1Nobody likes going to funerals.  For a start off, you’re dealing with having lost someone you knew, or you’re there to support a friend who’s lost someone. Then you have to dress up in smart, dark clothing, head off to a church or chapel that you may not be familiar with, sit on uncomfortable seats and hope like mad that half a billion relatives don’t stand up and give interminable eulogies. Then you’ve got the trip to the graveside, following the hearse.

This procession of cars behind a hearse going from the church/mosque/chapel/synagogue/other significant ceremonial place is known as a cortege. Or cortège if you want the fancy French spelling.  This is supposed to be a stately procession. The idea here is that the hearse leads the way, usually taking the minister/priest/rabbi and the coffin.  The chief mourners (i.e. immediate family) will come next in the procession. To take part in the cortege, set out from the chapel or wherever the funeral was held and follow the hearse. Don’t dawdle.

When you are driving in the cortege, you get to have your headlights on dip during the day (here’s where you hope you can override those automatically dipping headlights). Also don’t forget to turn your headlights off when you get to the cemetery or everybody will get a flat battery. Don’t overtake other people in the procession and let the hearse set the pace.

Well, in most situations, you let the hearse set the pace. At my father-in-law’s funeral, we (a) had quite a long way to go to get to the cemetery, (b) had a hearse with a fairly powerful engine and (c) had a petrol-head vicar who might have been egging the hearse driver on.  I don’t know how fast that hearse was going, but my husband didn’t half have to plant the boot in the Ford Fairmont  we had back then to keep up with the hearse.  Other family members struggled to keep up the pace and one bunch of my in-laws who had a less zesty Honda Odyssey MPV  were Not Impressed.  It would have been a traffic cop’s dream situation: a whole line of people all over the speed limit, quota of speeding tickets filled in one day and a great story about I Clocked A Hearse Doing 120+ To The Cemetery.

What if you are not part of the funeral procession? What’s the best thing to do when you see a long line of cars with their headlights on dip containing drivers in dark suits following a hearse? These days, you probably need to check to make sure that it isn’t just a bunch of car-pooling businesspeople with daytime running lights, but usually the presence of a hearse, children in the car and several cars that are too old to have daytime running lights are a bit of a giveaway.

What you may not know if you see a funeral procession is that you have to give way to it. This means all the cars in the procession. In New South Wales, it’s actually against the law to break into the funeral procession, cut in or otherwise interfere with the smooth process of getting mourners to the graveside on time for the final part of saying goodbye. Even if it wasn’t the law, it’s common decency and respect for others.

You can see why if you can imagine the same situation taking place on foot. If you saw the minister and the pallbearers carrying the coffin on foot along a walkway, followed by black-clad grieving relatives wielding tissues, you wouldn’t overtake them and get into the procession if you were approaching from the rear. (In other words, overtaking Cousin Hannah with all the kids in tow so you walk between her and Cousin Jeff before overtaking Cousin Jeff and Uncle Timothy…) If you were approaching them at right angles, you wouldn’t barge straight on through them, getting in the way.  The same rules of courtesy apply when you are in a car rather than on foot. Dipped headlights are the motoring equivalent of black clothes, tissues and flags at half-mast. Respect them.

Unfortunately, a number of people have reported rude drivers cutting in to funeral processions, either by not giving way to them or by overtaking and interrupting the procession. Obviously, traffic lights don’t count (if the hearse driver has any sense, he/she will drop the speed so other members of the procession can keep up and not get lost.).

If you do lose sight of the rest of the cortege, your phone will come in handy (hands-free if you’re the driver).  Cemeteries are usually located outside central business areas and may involve obscure suburban streets.  Having another relative with the phone on in other cars will help if you do get lost or separated from the rest of the procession. Just don’t forget to turn it off when you get to the cemetery.

If you are not part of the procession, then give way. Pull over and let them pass you if you accidentally find yourself in the middle of a cortege.  Yes, it’s inconvenient and you don’t want to. However, the people in the procession don’t want to be there either and they’re going through a lot more inconvenience than you. If you’re late for a meeting, your clients/boss/co-workers understand (even if it’s a job interview, this might earn you points for courtesy).  Or go around another way if you’re really in a hurry.  Yes, life is busy these days.  But it’s not so busy that you can’t be respectful of other people’s feelings and show some respect.

Have other people had experiences with funeral processions that were interrupted by rude drivers cutting in?  Or any other examples of a cortege that didn’t quite go according to the textbook plan?  Share your stories here.

Safe and happy driving,