Chances are you’ve ever seen one either on a highway or on a local road: a black car leading a long line of vehicles and a hearse escorted by law enforcement on their way to the final resting place. It’s one of the most enduring images and well-known traditions of a funeral service. However, despite the common occurrence of said funeral processions, there are still a lot of regulations and etiquette involved to even have one as part of a service.
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While funeral processions vary based on tradition and location, this particular tradition shows respect for the deceased on their way to the final resting place. In modern times, funeral processions present a lot of challenges, especially with traffic laws and road etiquette.
In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about funeral processions so you know what to expect. Whether you’re planning the funeral for a loved one or preparing yourself to encounter processions on the road, follow these tips.
COVID-19 tip: If you're planning or attending a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, the procession may look different than what's described below. Consult with the funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to see what changes can be made to accommodate online guests and COVID-19 restrictions.
What’s a Funeral Procession?
A funeral procession is the action of traveling with the casket to the final resting place, usually a cemetery or crematorium. In the past, people were commonly buried at churches, so there was no need to develop a particular form of travel around a casket. Today, most people are buried or cremated separately from the place of worship or funeral home. The funeral procession can symbolize the journey a loved one takes on the way to the gravesite and offers an opportunity for family and close friends to partake.
In the past, family members would carry the casket on foot to the final resting place, as most towns and villages were smaller. Travel by foot is still common in some traditions and parts of the world, but it’s uncommon in most modern cities nowadays.
The funeral procession might not just be limited to traveling to the gravesite. In Catholic funeral traditions, for example, the procession begins in the church with the priest and congregation, adding another step to the tradition.
Today, a hearse is typically used to transport the body to the cemetery. The procession group, usually comprised of close family members as designated pallbearers, will carry the casket from the service venue to the hearse. They will then carry it one final time to the gravesite once they’ve reached the cemetery. The funeral procession is an opportunity to say one last goodbye to one’s deceased friend or family member before laying them to rest.
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FAQs: Funeral Procession Laws
There are a few laws to be aware of for funeral processions. Whether you’re planning a procession for a family member or preparing to see one on the road, you need to familiarize yourself with the laws. Note that these vary depending on the state, but this is still a good overview. Keeping these laws in mind empowers you to be respectful to those who are in mourning.
Do you have to pull over for a funeral procession?
The law states you have to pull your car safely to the side to let ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks pass. What about a funeral procession? Believe it or not, according to most state laws, funeral processions have the right of way in traffic. That means you could get a ticket if you cut through a procession or fail to yield to funeral traffic.
This is especially true in the case of a military funeral where the hearse is escorted by police officers. While you don’t need to pull over for a funeral procession as you would for an emergency vehicle, you do need to give them the right of way. If you do choose to pull over, make sure you do so safely.
Can you pass a funeral procession?
As stated above, funeral processions generally have the right of way. This means it’s not legal to pass them if you’ll be cutting through the procession in any way. If the entire funeral procession is in the right lane, however, you can carefully pass.
Again, be respectful on the road. There should be no honking or rude actions, even if the funeral procession is slowing you down.
Do funeral processions have to stop at intersections?
Funeral processions do have to stop at intersections except in Nevada. Otherwise, it’s important to still obey intersection traffic laws while in a funeral procession. The only exception to this is if the first car has already gone through the intersection. Then, the following cars continue through the intersection even if the traffic light has changed.
However, it’s still a smart idea to drive with caution. Funeral processions usually stay at a speed between 35 - 55 miles per hour. This slower speed keeps the party together no matter the intersections.
Do they need a police escort?
Funeral processions do not legally need a police escort. Sometimes police voluntarily escort a funeral procession if it’s necessary. This keeps traffic safe and moving, especially in the case of a large funeral.
Police escorts are also common for high-profile processions. You’re likely to see them if the deceased person is a celebrity, a police officer's or firefighter's funeral, or a military hero. Families also have the option to hire a police escort if they think they need one.
Do processions need a permit?
In most states, funeral processions do not need a permit. Instead, the lead car, typically a black sedan, will display two funeral flags. Funeral flags are plain white flags that indicate to other motorists that a funeral procession is taking place.
Aside from this, the lead car will also display its hazard lights. Other cars in the procession will usually have a magnetic flag in a bright color placed on the hood of the vehicle, or conversely a large sign perched on the dashboard. This flag will read “funeral,” signifying that they are a part of the procession. These subtle signs make it clear to passing cars that they should respect the procession and keep their distance.
FAQs: Funeral Procession Etiquette
Aside from the laws above, it’s also important to recognize the funeral procession etiquette. Knowing how a procession typically takes place as well as how to respond if you see one on the street will help you pay your respects properly. Review the tips below to make sure you know what to do when the time comes.
Who leads a funeral procession?
The “lead car” is the one who leads the funeral procession. This is the car that bears the white funeral flags and hazard lights to let others know that a procession is coming through traffic. The lead car is usually a black sedan, but it can also be a limousine or a funeral service vehicle.
Who is in the back of the procession?
Behind the lead car is the hearse, followed by the family cars. If there are any other cars in the procession, they are behind the main family vehicles. Who is in the back of the procession will depend on the size of the funeral party, but it’s traditionally only members of the close family in the limousine.
Is it okay to honk or to hurry up the procession if I need to be somewhere?
It is important to be respectful if you notice a funeral procession while driving. Never honk or hurry up the procession, even if you have somewhere to be.
Follow these tips for being courteous to the procession on the road:
- Allow all the cars in the procession to pass through the intersection, even if they have a red light and you have a green light. This is especially true if there’s an escort vehicle.
- Do not cut off a procession or cut into the line of cars.
- Don’t honk at the funeral party or encourage them to go faster.
- Unless there are more than two lanes, do not try to pass a funeral in the right lane.
- If you do choose to pull over to allow the procession to pass, make sure you do so safely.
Consider how you’d feel if someone was being disrespectful during one of your family’s funeral processions. Remember that the family is dealing with grief during this time, and reckless driving at such a heightened emotional time may be very painful and distracting to the family.
What loved ones are usually included the funeral procession?
Usually, only close friends and family are in the funeral procession, though this will depend on the wishes of the deceased. When it comes to carrying the casket to the hearse, the pallbearers will help with lifting and positioning.
The family cars usually only includes immediate family members. If this is a large funeral, there might be more flexibility. Otherwise, additional family and friends travel with the procession in their own car behind the limousine.
Prepare for a Funeral Procession
Whether you’re planning for a funeral procession or you want to know what to do if you see one yourself, this guide will help you. The funeral procession is a chance for family and friends to be with their departed loved one for the last time. It’s a time of grief and sorrow, but also a chance for the entire family to come together.
While laws and traditions vary, it’s important to give funeral processions the right of way if you encounter them on the road. Allowing the family to get to their destination without incident is an easy way to offer peace in their time of need.
Over the years, funeral processions adjusted to suit modern times. Even though it’s no longer common to travel by foot, it’s still important to be respectful.
- Sadlak, Kristina. “Right-of-Way of Funeral Processions.” OLR Research Report. 12 March 2004. Cga.ct.gov.