I believe that funeral processions tell us a lot about ourselves and our lives. As a 30-year-old WASP living in a university town, funeral processions didn’t elicit a second thought from me – except in those annoying times when I had to wait in traffic for one of them to pass. Even with the disproportionate number of losses I’ve experienced in my life, I didn’t get it. But in the eight years since I have developed a deep respect and reverence for this ritual and for the way in which my neighbors take part in it.
Since the beginning in America this caravan of vehicles – be they horse drawn or engine powered – has processed from church to graveyard to gather their occupants one last time around the body of the deceased to say their final goodbyes. This collective farewell is a comforting and bonding experience like no other. The rituals involved – tossing dirt on the casket, laying flowers on it, or presenting a folded flag to the family – hold a deep significance in the building of our collective history.
For most of my adult life, I liked the fact that when I was part of the caravan, traffic stopped and I could drive through a red light. Often cars that were not in our caravan looked for opportunities to bypass the procession and avoid the delay in their busy day. But for the past eight years I have lived in a working-class neighborhood of roughly 50% African-American families. I have observed as my neighbors dress in their finest clothes, and gather for hours to honor the newly deceased. The processions are long, and people who are NOT part of the line of cars, rather than finding a way around them, pull over to the side of the road and wait in respect for the mourners and the dead to pass.
Five years ago my mother died much too young. I learned what it feels like to lose a part of oneself, and how it feels like the world should stop. Now I get it. Today when one of my neighbors crosses over from this life, and his loved ones take part in the public ritual of the funeral procession, I do my part to stop the world for a moment. I pull my car over, turn my radio off, and nod my condolences to the mourning members of the caravan. And for a moment I remember my losses and feel the deep connection that we all share in such times of sorrow. This week, when my 26 year old cousin died in a tragic accident, I was moved to tears as we processed through the small town where he lived and I saw people pull over and wait while the line of nearly 100 cars passed by. I believe that a small act of humanity like this one can be the most important of all.
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