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FAQ: What are the Traditions and Etiquette of a Funeral Procession?

January 15, 2018

A funeral procession is used to accompany the body or the cremated remains of a deceased person from the funeral service to the cemetery. A funeral procession allows for the family and friends to come together as one in their grief and mourning. Often the procession will pass important places in the life of their loved one, and together, the family and friends can remember and celebrate. 

“When somebody dies, it is important for their community to pause and show a sign of respect. The public aspect of the funeral procession allows for this opportunity. Families often comment while riding in the procession when a stranger stops on the sidewalk and tips their hat or makes the sign of the cross. During the procession of a veteran, we place U.S. flags on the hearse and limo along with the seal of the branch of service on the hearse. Often times, other veterans will pause and salute as the procession goes by,” said Co-president Dennis Keohane.

Funeral Procession Traditions

For thousands of years, many cultures have had funeral processions as they laid their deceased loved ones to rest. This tradition offers a sense that family and friends are caring for their deceased loved ones as they collectively take the journey to their place of rest.

One of the most unique funeral processions happens in New Orleans with the so-called jazz funeral. Blending European and African traditions with Mardi Gras revelers, the jazz funeral procession is accompanied by a brass band. It typically begins with a march by family and friends, accompanied by the band, from the funeral home or church to the cemetery. On the way to the cemetery the band plays more somber music, but after the hearse leaves the procession the music becomes more lively and upbeat to celebrate the life of the deceased. Those that follow the band in the funeral procession just to enjoy the music often twirl a parasol or wave a handkerchief in the air.

Funeral processions at Arlington National Cemetery go from the chapel where the funeral service is held to the burial site. When the services are completed, the casket is often transferred to a horse-drawn caisson. The family either walks behind the caisson, or drives in a vehicle to the gravesite. Processions that involve full military honors include a color guard, firing party and a military band.

For funeral processions in China, the eldest son and the family of the deceased walk just behind the funeral vehicle which carries the coffin to the place of burial. Other relatives follow behind with a piece of white cloth to connect the family to the funeral vehicle. A joss stick is lit and carried during the funeral procession. Joss sticks are made from coarse bamboo paper symbolizing “spirit money” which is burned to guarantee that the spirit of the deceased has many good things in the afterlife.

Funeral Procession Etiquette

In the past, motorists customarily yielded the right-of-way to all vehicles in a funeral procession or pulled over to the side of the road. Today, this custom has been systemized into law in most states, but the laws governing funeral processions vary from state to state. If you’re not sure about the laws in your state, check this document compiled by a law firm.

To avoid deadly accidents or costly traffic tickets, here are some general guidelines to follow regarding funeral processions.

Driving in a Funeral Procession:

  • Turn on your headlights to let other drivers know you are part of the procession. Some funeral homes will provide a flag for your vehicle.
  • Stay close to the car in front of you so other vehicles which are not part of the funeral procession cannot cut into the line.
  • Stay in line. Most states allow the entire procession to proceed through an intersection, even if the light has turned red, except to yield to emergency vehicles or the directions of a police officer.
  • Don’t use your cell phone or other distractions from driving.
  • Drive slowly. Most funeral processions follow the posted speed limit or even go a bit slower and no more than 55 mph on the highway.

If you encounter a funeral procession:

  • Yield the right-of-way until the entire procession is through an intersection. Once the lead vehicle in the procession – usually a hearse with flags visible and head lights turned on – goes through a traffic light or stop sign, the entire procession is typically allowed to follow.
  • Look for the last vehicle in the procession which usually has hazard lights blinking to signify the end of the procession. Once the last vehicle passes, traffic flow may continue. But if the light is red, wait for the light to turn green before proceeding through an intersection.
  • Never cut into a funeral procession or tag onto the end of a procession.
  • Don’t honk your horn at a funeral procession.
  • On the highway, don’t pass a funeral procession on the right unless the procession is in the far left lane.

Throughout the ages, human beings have solemnly and respectfully conveyed their departed loved ones from memorial site to burial site. Whatever the transportation method, funeral processions have always been highly respected out of honor to the dead and regard of the mourners. Knowing the laws, customs and etiquette of the funeral procession is essential for everyone’s safety, for fully honoring the deceased, and for solidarity of friends and family mourning a loss.

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