Everything you need to know about funeral processions or cortèges

We’ll cover what a funeral procession is, where they come from and why they happen. We’ll also go through how to take part in one and what to do if you come across one.

A funeral procession, or cortège, is when a group of people or vehicles follow a coffin

A traditional funeral procession begins at the funeral home or at the home of the person who’s died. It finishes at the location of the service and burial or cremation. 

If the service is taking place at a separate location to the burial or cremation people sometimes organise a procession between them. So a funeral can have 2, 1 or no processions if the funeral organisers decide they do not want one. 

In the past processions took place on foot, with male family members carrying the coffin on a metal or wooden framework called a bier. In modern times processions often take place on the road. They are usually led by a hearse; a type of car created to hold coffins.

Sometimes processions begin when people carry the coffin into the hearse. And end when it’s lifted out and into the location of the service or burial. So a procession can be both on foot and via a car. Funeral directors often lead parts of the procession that are on foot.

People call funeral processions a few different names

The most common are procession or cortège. Some Americans may call it a motorcade. This means a series of cars and motorcycles that move slowly along a road around someone. 

Some people might even call it a retinue, which is when a group of people go with an important person, like a politician or celebrity. Every procession follows its own conventions, so it’s best to ask the funeral organisers what they want to call it.

A funeral procession is an opportunity for people to go with the body on its final journey

Some people find the experience of a group acknowledging someone’s final journey important, particularly if they’re part of a close community. Historically people paid their respect to processions by bowing their heads and giving the procession right of way. This community aspect can comfort people in the same way a funeral service does.

Funeral processions started in the Egyptian period and travelled through time

In Ancient Egypt the local priest organised the procession. Oxen or men pulled the mummified body on a sledge. The Romans brought the tradition to England. These processions could be quite extravagant as professional mourners were paid to wail. The louder the wailing the more wealthy and important the person.

Chaucer, a famous English poet, introduced the word funerals into the english language in the 1300s in The Canterbury Tales. The tradition of limousines transporting the coffin also started in the 1300s. This eventually became the modern hearse.

If you’re taking part in a funeral procession check the details

  1. Arrive early at the starting location and talk with the funeral director

    This is a good opportunity to clarify the route. You might also ask about the order that cars and people are travelling in.

  2. Make sure you know where the procession starts and ends

    Knowing the route is important if another car cuts you off from the group or you get lost. Some processions plan routes that pass specific landmarks or treasured memories. It can be useful to ask about these as well.

  3. If you’re driving, go slowly and stay close to the car in front

    Whilst leaving a safe braking distance between the two of you. If you do get split up, go to the next location you know on the route or drive to the end location and wait.

  4. And check what parking is like at the end location

    To make sure there’s space and time for you to get to the service or burial.

Want to know more about funeral directors?

Find out more about what a funeral director does here.

The order of the procession is usually decided by the loved ones of the person who has died

If you are on foot the person holding the service, such as the celebrant, priest or pastor, usually leads. The people carrying the coffin, called pallbearers, tend to come next. Followed by family, close friends and other guests. 

The people organising the funeral may or may not follow these traditions. That’s why it’s important to check with the funeral director.

People tend to wear formal dark colours to a funeral procession

As funerals that include them tend to be traditional in style. But it’s always important to check with the funeral organisers what the dress code is. Up to half of funerals in the UK are now viewed as a celebration of life. So someone may ask you to wear bright colours or lively fashions that reflect the person who has died.

Specific parts of the world have unique funeral procession traditions

In the East End of London horse drawn carriages sometimes carry the coffin and lead the procession. As people from the East End move out of London this tradition has been picked up in Essex as well. 

In New Orleans brass bands sometimes lead the procession of celebrated jazz musicians, but anyone can request it. On the way to the service the music starts off mournful and sad, but on the way back it becomes celebratory.

The renowned New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet said “Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life. '' Though people have started calling these Jazz Funerals, New Orleans who take part prefer to call them a ‘funeral with music’.

There are no laws you have to follow in the UK if you come across a funeral procession

But there are social expectations it is thoughtful to follow. If you encounter a funeral procession whilst you’re driving:

  • Give the procession space by avoiding cutting in 

  • Give way to the hearse and funeral cars so they can stay together

  • Don’t beep your horn even if they are going slowly

  • Try not to overtake unless you are on a dual carriageway 

  • Consider if you are playing music loudly or have your windows down

If you encounter a funeral procession whilst you’re walking:

  • Try not to cross the road in front of the hearse or rest of the procession

  • Considering stopping and bowing your head as a kind gesture

  • Think about how much noise you are making

You don’t have to have a funeral procession if you or your loved one don’t like the idea

The funeral procession is a lovely tradition, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. If you or your loved one want a simple funeral it might not be the right choice. 

A simple funeral can be just as meaningful as a larger one. But if you or your loved one are part of a close community and the idea appeals to you it may be something to consider.

We can help you arrange a simple meaningful funeral

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