Understanding the Value of Funeral Processions

By Alan D. Wolfelt, Director, Center for Loss & Life Transition

My attention was drawn to your blog post entitled “Funeral Processions Should be Outlawed,” which originally appeared on ChicagoNow.com.

The challenge to funeral service is clearly stated in the author’s opening line: “I’ve never understood the reasons behind the funeral procession.” So, here we have a clear statement of the problem. Often, it is this very lack of understanding of the value of various elements of meaningful funeral experiences (visitation, music, readings, eulogy, symbols, processions¸ reception) that causes some people to eliminate them.

Unfortunately, not understanding the WHY, or the value, of the elements, many grieving families forego them. Too often today they are stripping the funeral bare of ceremonial elements in favor of direct disposition. What they do not realize missing the “sweet spot” of a meaningful funeral experience. As T.S. Eliot observed, “You can have an experience and miss the meaning.”

In this blog post focusing on the specific element of the procession, the author claims, “They’re a traffic hazard…a massive inconvenience…and completely useless.” Of course, as the author of a number of books that advocate for the value of funerals, I beg to disagree.

The processions (or corège) literally means “to pay honor.” Often, the last thing we can do for someone we love is accompany him or her to the grave. While it provides the practical function of accompanying the dead person’s body (or cremated remains) to a “final resting place,” the procession serves a number of other needs as well.

The procession is intended to activate community support. Drivers are encourages to pull over and show respect for this final rite of passage, which signifies the transition between life and death. The procession puts the entire community on notice that one of their own has died. As drivers stop or pull over, they are invited to take pause and not only show respect for the bereaved family and friends, but to consider the preciousness of life and ponder their own mortality (one of the unstated reasons many people do not like processions). If we believe that taking a brief moment for community acknowledgement of a member’s death is a “massive inconvenience,” We have lost sight of all that is truly important.

In addition, driving in a procession often results in a sense of meaning and purpose for the participants. Their grief moves in unison and solidarity. Often their feelings inside are weighty and somber, and the weighty and somber movements of the procession expresses their internal reality. Mourning in internal grief expressed externally, and it is essential to healing. The procession is a form of mourning.

I would take this opportunity to remind everyone involved in funeral service about their responsibility as gatekeepers of ceremony surrounding death. You have an obligation to educate the families you serve and the general public about the value of funerals and the individual elements they consist of (in this case, the procession).

Yes, processions do slow traffic and force us to pause when we may be in a hurry. They are supposed to. In a fast-paced, convenience-oriented culture that is forgetting the value of meaningful funeral experiences, I invite you to join me in teaching your fellow human beings the reasons we have had processions for generations.

Dr. Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of creating meaningful funeral experiences. He has created a practical model that interfaces six essential functions of funerals with the elements of ceremony, and offers a training specifically for funeral for funeral directors on this bi-annually. Recipient of the Association of Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, Dr. Wolfelt is Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. He is also the author of many bestselling books, including Funeral Home Customer Service A to Z and Creating Meaningful Funeral Experiences. He also writes a regular column on customer service for The Director magazine. For additional information visit www.centerforloss.com.