If you've driven a car in the United States, chances are you've encountered a funeral cortege. These lines of cars, often marked by flags from a funeral home, generally stick together. They drive slowly, and most other cars will yield to them to help keep the procession together. It's generally out of respect for the fact that someone has passed away.
Jump ahead to these sections:
The funeral cortege is the formal name for the procession that leaves a funeral home. This group of cars drives together to the burial site. Once there, mourners walk to the gravesite. There, they have a final chance to grieve and commemorate the life of the deceased before burial.
Participating in a funeral often makes us think about the fact that we'll all pass away and need such plans. When considering your own end-of-life plan, you may discover that there are different options for a pre-planned funeral. This pre-planning process lets you decide whether you want a funeral cortege, and if so, what it'll be like. Learn more here about what this would entail for you and your family.
Funeral Cortege Definition
The funeral cortege is the formal procession from a funeral to the burial ground. It begins with the hearse, then is followed by the closest family members in a limousine or car. The rest of the cortege is a line of cars containing family or friends who are also going to the gravesite. The final car is usually from the funeral home.
Different funeral cortege rites are observed around the world. In many of them, the main goals are to proceed slowly, without interruption to the burial site. This maintains the thoughtful and mournful atmosphere of the funeral.
To this end, cars signal to the drivers around them that they are part of a funeral cortege. They do this by driving slowly, keeping their headlights on, and staying in formation. They may also have small flags attached to their cars to indicate they are part of the procession.
These processions maintain the solemnity of a funeral. They give people the chance to remain in their contemplative state of mind while also getting to the burial site.
What else do you call a funeral cortege?
Cortege is a fairly old-fashioned word. Usually, this part of a funeral’s ritual is called a funeral procession.
A motorcade refers to any sequence of vehicles traveling in a line as a single party, making a cortege a motorcade. Motorcades are not always for a funeral. They also exist for transporting important celebrities and politicians. Military vehicles will often drive in motorcade fashion as well.
Funeral cortege in a sentence
“After the funeral, the family members joined the funeral cortege. It drove slowly through the neighborhoods to Windy Willows Cemetery.”
Funeral cortege etiquette
In general, the expectation is that you won't drive quickly or pass people in a funeral cortege. To maintain the somber mood of a funeral, most people are attentive and quiet as they wait for instructions before the cortege begins.
Some funeral homes will distribute flags to show which cars are in the procession. Being respectful tends to involve following the lead of the funeral director or a family member. If you aren't sure what to do, ask a staff member quietly. In general, this isn't the time to ask close family or friends who are focusing on their grief.
Once your funeral cortege arrives at the gravesite, continue the air of quiet and calm. The best strategy for being respectful is to let the proceedings happen without getting in the way. If you’re a pallbearer or have been asked to complete another task, stay close at hand to be ready when it's your turn to act.
Where You’ll Find a Funeral Cortege
Every culture handles the style of cortege or procession differently. There are many cultures and religious traditions that include a procession of some kind, though many long-time traditions don't involve cars. Processions originally held as walks may be modified in places where cars are the norm. They may be changed if a temple, funeral home, or other funeral location is far from the burial site.
Here are some processions that have occurred in both past and present cultures around the world. Not every procession is consistent across the entire culture since family and region-specific traditions also exist.
In many traditional Cambodian funerals, a procession from the home of the deceased is led by an achar or priest. The priest is followed by monks, family members, and others who are in mourning. The cortege goes to the temple for a ceremony. The closest family members wear white, a color of mourning in Cambodia.
Jewish funerals often include a solemn, formal procession before the burial. Mourners walk behind the casket and important psalms are recited.
Ancient Greek funeral rites from the Homeric era included a processional journey to the gravesite just before dawn. Modern Greek processions are often simple and quiet. They move from a Greek Orthodox church or funeral service to the chosen gravesite.
Funerals for a public servant or figure
In the United States and beyond, when a public servant dies, the procession may have more accompanying cars than usual. This is true for a police officer’s funeral because their work focused on protecting others. It's often true for public figures, where the processional may serve as a time for their community to mourn if they aren’t going to the gravesite.
Around the world, when important figures die, many people join the procession on foot as the cars move slowly along.
Funerals in New Orleans
New Orleans has a unique tradition. They begin their funeral processions for prominent members of the jazz community with a hymn-filled journey to the gravesite. This journey carries solemnity and mourning like other funeral processions. Afterward, joyous jazz breaks out, honoring the city's tradition of celebration. After the burial, a parade/musical journey may continue for hours.
Many other faith traditions and cultural groups include some form of walking or driving from the site of the funeral to the site for burial. The rites related to the funeral will vary substantially, though. In today’s globalized world, people may choose to alter the rules or expectations.
Funeral Cortege in the Modern Day
Understanding funeral procession laws and expectations is a key part of respect during a time of deep mourning. Over the years, what was both a ritual and practical transportation of the coffin to the burial site has become a time for people to reflect on their loved one and hold these thoughts close.
The funeral cortege may seem like a very formal time, but having a formal structure to which everyone adheres can minimize confusion and distraction at a time when every mourner wants to keep their thoughts on their loss.
- “Death in Cambodian Buddhist Culture.” EthnoMed. University of Washington. webs01.hsl.washington.edu/clinical/end-of-life/death-in-cambodian-buddhist-culture
- A Jewish Burial and Procession. Chabad.org. Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/281569/jewish/A-Jewish-Burial-and-Procession.htm
- “Death, Burial and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece.” The Met Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dbag/hd_dbag.htm