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Infrequently Asked Questions: Where did funeral processions come from?

The concept of a funeral procession feels timeless, one of those customs so ingrained in how we do things that we seldom question its origins or purpose. Curious about how funeral processions got their start, we reached out to Tony Moore, director of funeral service education at Northhampton Community Collegein Bethlehem, for a rundown.

What prompted the tradition of funeral motorcades, or processions?

Well, motorcades, processions or another word for it is cortege, actually started back in the [Ancient] Egyptian period. Of course, they didn’t have motor vehicles, etc., but the person who actually organized the procession was called the kher-heb, and that was basically the lector priest. And the body — of course back then it was mummies — the mummy would be placed on a sledge and was either pulled by oxen or men. And the procession included a family and servants and professional mourners.

The Greeks actually had a funeral procession where the corpse was on a bier, a table or stand that was carried by the family members. Or they could even hire people to carry the body and pay them to do that.

The Roman procession, how that was done, it would depend on your social status. A common person, it was kind of like they just processed quietly and without notice, but if it was someone with wealth, they would have a more elaborate, extensive parade … where they have bands as part of [the procession].

And then early Christians, in the early 200s or so, in that era, instead of being based on social status of the deceased, the Christian procession actually was more subdued, or reverent … there was a sense of triumph — the belief the person has begun a new life in death. And so, the funeral procession … the bearers carried the bier, and they just lightly went into procession to the grave site and were singing hymns and songs along the way, and actually carried torches toward the end of the procession. Because the light represented the promise of everlasting life for the person, and triumph over death.

Eventually, you get to the horse-drawn buggy era and the elaborate – they call them a hearse, but they were like carriages. They were ornate, decorative, and most of them had glass sides so you could see the body or the casket they were in. They would have horses that wore plumes, and the plumes were placed on the actual carriage or hearse. They let people know what the social status was of a person. A person may have two plumes, but someone richer or more outstanding would have three or four or keep going up depending on the status they had in life. And that was really near the colonial period.

After that, they had the gas buggy, which wasn’t big enough for the full casket, so the body would partly go under the driver because the drivers were actually outside. Then, when the automobile came out, they started switching over to a more enclosed type hearse for the procession. And throughout the times, the color of the hearses have changed — the colors used today are primarily black, white, silver, blues …

In the 1930s and ‘40s, they started carrying them in limousines. They even had some hearses that had places for family to ride inside the hearse with the body. And we’ve seen some of those come out again in the last few years. And so now they’re not lavish hearses, they just have the little [S-shaped bar] on the back of it, a landau, and that is just a symbol placed on all hearses.

So when it switched to automobiles, was there any law written that gave them a free pass in traffic laws, like there is now?

[Circa] 1920 is when automobiles became a dominant source of funeral transportation. And as far as right-of-way of funeral processions, it varies from state to state [and many don’t have any laws at all] …

In Pennsylvania, basically what the Pennsylvania law [established in 1991] states is that funeral processions can go through a red light or stop sign, but the stipulation is that if the lead car – nowadays we have a lead car in front of the hearse where the funeral director rides – is at the intersection, and the light is red, they have to stop. But if it’s green when the lead car goes through, the rest of the procession can go through. And at a stop sign, after the lead car has stopped, and then starts through the stop sign, the rest of the procession can follow through.

And then the other requirement is that every vehicle in the procession has to have their headlights [on] — emergency flashers. And I don’t know if you’ve seen funeral processions that have purple flags on them, but each car has to have some kind of little flag that indicates they’re in the funeral procession. And the funeral procession is just like any other vehicle: They have to yield to emergency vehicles.

Why do a procession at all now, though? Why not drive to the burial site on your own?

It’s tradition and customs. Customs of the deceased, or the community where they live, etc.

And as far as motorcades go usually when you refer to a procession as a motorcade, it’s a high official — or somebody very important. One of the things that distinguishes a motorcade from a procession is you have police escorting. If the president died, they’d have five or six armored vehicles close by. That’s what a motorcade is.

What do you think it symbolizes today, in how we practice it?

I think it’s lost its value because in the past we’d see a funeral procession come, and people would actually pull over and show their respect to the entire funeral procession. And that has its roots back in early times, because if there was a funeral procession, everybody on the street would stop whatever they were doing and turn and show reverence as the procession passed by …

Today, people just fly by funeral processions and don’t show respect.

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