by Wayne Geiger
I don’t like walking through flower shops. In fact, I’m not a huge fan of flowers in general. It’s not that I don’t find them beautiful. I do. It’s just that flowers don’t mean to me what they mean to others.
It’s not that I had an unfortunate meeting with a Venus Flytrap. It’s a little deeper. I don’t like the smell. Researchers tell us that out of our five senses, our sense of smell is the one most connected to our memories.
As a pastor for a number of years, I have been acquainted with many funerals and memorial services. When I smell the flowers, I am transported back to hurting and grieving families.
It’s my calling to assist those who are grieving. And, over the last 25 years, I’ve learned some important truths about funerals.
“You can ride up front,” the funeral director said. As a young pastor I was mortified when it was suggested that I ride in the hearse. “Seriously!” I thought, “This is the vehicle designed to carry the body of the deceased person and their casket to the cemetery!”
It just seemed a little “weird” and I had flashbacks of the 1979 movie, Phantasm, that scared me as a kid. However, I was told it was proper etiquette and, if nothing else, I could keep the driver company. He had no one else to talk to.
Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. With our modern technology, this is not really an issue, but in the mid-1800s it was. There were tales of people buried alive and even the production of a coffin that came complete with a string connected to a bell that the supposed deceased could ring should they be truly alive. Our modern practices eliminate this need.
But, to be honest, riding in the hearse, I was a little uneasy and I did listen for strange noises behind me.
The hearse is not the first car in the procession. It is generally the second. The first car is called the “lead car.” The lead car will often be a black sedan or SUV sometimes with flags or some way to indicate that it is the lead car in a funeral procession. The second car is the hearse.
The third vehicle is often a black limousine that is used to transport the close family of the deceased. Then, comes all the other vehicles, followed by one final vehicle to indicate the end of the procession. The length of funeral processions vary, of course, by the number of people who will attend the funeral and then choose to go to the burial.
It’s customary for everyone in the funeral procession to turn on their headlights and flashers. Also, expect to do about 10 mph under the speed limit. The procession is a way of letting everyone else know that this is a group of family and friends who are in mourning and deserve respect from their fellow man.
Generally, the funeral procession will be aided by local police and/or an escort from a professional transport service. Out of respect, funeral processions are given the “right of way.” Their goal is to keep everyone together in an unbroken line all the way to the cemetery. If possible, they try not to stop at red lights or stop signs.
Other vehicles are expected to yield to the procession. This is not a time for onlookers to be impatient or disrespectful. To aid the procession, escort vehicles will block traffic. Even if your light is green, you are expected to wait and you should never blow your horn.
On smaller, two lane roads, oncoming vehicles will sometimes pull over to the shoulder and wait for the entire procession to pass. This is a sign of respect. Some passengers may even nod as a sign of solidarity as if to say, “Our family has been there too.”
Funeral processions can be very dangerous. “A guy was killed a couple of weeks ago,” the driver of a hearse told me recently. He continued, “As much as I appreciate what they do, I wouldn’t want their job.” Listening behind me, I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want yours either.”
He went on to tell me how an escort motorcycle driver attempted to block an intersection for the procession, but someone did not see the procession—or him--and struck and killed him. I couldn’t help but think of the unbelievable irony.
In the last several decades, there have been an alarming number of fatalities involving police vehicles in funeral processions. The trend has led to some drastic changes in protocol and using private escort services.
Part of the problem, I believe, is just a lack of knowledge of funeral procession etiquette. Most people just don’t know what is expected. The other part of the problem, perhaps, is that we have become a very selfish society. It’s not that people don’t know, but could it be that, perhaps, that they don’t care?
“Some time ago we had a lady that kept passing cars in the procession,” the hearse driver complained, “She made it all the way up to the hearse, but the escort service wouldn’t let her pass,” he said chuckling as to suggest poetic justice.
I could picture the scene in my mind of her weaving in and out the mourners attempting to pass the entire processional one car at time. “She wasn’t too happy when she was forced to go all the way to the cemetery,” he concluded.
But then again, no one is really happy at the cemetery. Once at the cemetery, you’ll probably see a tent that is set up. This indicates the location of the resting spot of the deceased. You’ll be expected to walk through the cemetery, at least a short way, to get to this cite. There will likely not be a path or stones to walk on.
In our culture, it’s generally frowned upon to walk directly on top of a grave. But, sometimes, it’s hard to avoid. Following the funeral director is the safest bet. Walking behind the headstones is the second safest. Either way, the cemetery is meant to be a place of honor and respect.
I didn’t really know it until researching for this article, but there is no law that requires a casket for burial (although some cemeteries do have rules). In fact, you could get a casket from Amazon if you wanted. Transporting it may be a little difficult, but if you rent a hearse, I could ride shotgun.
You could even build your own casket. There are no laws against that. Your neighbors may be a little uneasy and look at you funny, but hey, they walk their dog in your yard.
By the way, burial on private property is an option in Missouri. There are guidelines and the land must be deeded in trust to the county commission. You must file the deed with the county clerk within 60 days (Missouri Revised Statutes 214.090). You’ll also want to check with the county registrar for additional zoning laws. Finally, you’ll probably want to watch Poltergeist or some other creepy movie. Just know, it never ends well.
Burial in a cemetery is probably the best bet. Once the hearse arrives, the departed is carried out of the hearse and the casket is loaded onto what’s called a casket lowering device.
After the service is concluded, the funeral director will say something like, “This concludes our graveside service, please feel free to take a flower from the casket and please be careful when departing to your vehicle.”
Only after everyone leaves will they lower the body into the grave. They won’t let you watch. The body does not go straight into the ground. It is put into what’s called a burial container that is often made of concrete, metal, or polystyrene. This container protects the coffin from the weight of the earth and helps maintenance crews to take care of the grounds.
I’ve learned quite a bit about funerals and funeral etiquette over the years. I know the information contained in this article is a little weird, but I hope that you learned some valuable information.
By the way, I don’t plan on buying a burial site. I’m hoping to rent one. Maybe you’ve noticed that people are traditionally buried with their bodies east to west. The headstone will face east and the person’s feet will face east. There is a reason.
The tradition for this is that when Jesus comes again the dead in Christ will rise to meet Him (Zech 14:3-4; Matthew 24:27). For me, being buried is a dead issue. I’m just passing through anyway.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.