The Case for a Cortege

To many people, and throughout the last one hundred years, cars in procession have been as instrumental to the funeral as the officiant or the death announcement. A cart, a horse-drawn carriage, a train or motor vehicle or just a parading line of grieving people in a funeral becomes “the cortege,” still a vitally important part of any transformative end-of-life ritual. You don’t have to lease a Lincoln or Cadillac, but you do need to line up and process. It’s a great word in this instance—you are processing the new reality, wading in, “working through,” bearing the weight and filing along—this is what we do when our loved ones die. We move from one point to the next with leaden legs and numb brains, but we press on. We move. It’s an epic wallow.

Hearse drivers today must carry themselves with an air of authority and confidence nearly blind—relying entirely on the view they get from their feeble side mirrors. The tiny window in the back of a hearse is largely useless, usually blocked by the dome of the casket, leaving beginning drivers in that fat yacht of a car, rudderless. The hearse driver holds a lot of power, and you’ve got to admire the great ones. How can a single driver convey the dead, and still keep the mourners in line together? It’s kind of an art. (Thank you, Gerry.)

 A burial in the Carpathian Mountains painted by Teodor Axentowicz in 1882.

A burial in the Carpathian Mountains painted by Teodor Axentowicz in 1882.

Obviously, President Bush’s cortege this week was a carefully choreographed, well-protected motorcade. But here in New York, in today’s intense traffic, commuters will cut off what remains of the cortege so savagely that hearse and limo drivers lament the end of civilization is near (one more reason, it seems to some, to watch Fox News). Even with the little purple flags flying on the dash, the funeral cortege doesn’t get the same old respect. Additionally, fewer people are going for fancy cars or flamboyance any more. They’d rather Uber to the crematory or the grave, which is fine, my friends, but here is my wisdom, this is my tip: don’t neglect the procession. Please work that part in somehow. I once helped a family that had no other chance to process but from the center of the crematory chapel, where the casket stood, to the door of the rear retort area just 15 feet away. But they did it. They accompanied their dead and marched alongside. Something gets dislodged in the doing and the moving. Love is internalized too.

 Green burial at Greensprings in Newfield, New York.

Green burial at Greensprings in Newfield, New York.

Amy Cunningham