On funeral etiquette, ritual and grief

My new job requires me to travel quite a bit, so sadly, I’m doing less bus riding and more car driving of late. Now instead of noticing things on the bus, I’m noticing things on the road, including something I’ve never seen in 15 years living in this Tucson suburb – a funeral procession.

The reaction of other drivers to this event made me think about the pace of our lives. Most of the cars driving in the opposite direction of the procession just kept on driving. They didn’t slow down, and only one pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

As a young child I was taught that all cars should stop when a funeral procession is approaching,and if driving in the same direction, one would never overtake it. That lesson was long time ago but it stuck, so I was surprised to see so many drivers acting as if nothing was happening as the procession passed by.

I don’t think people were necessarily trying to be rude. There’s a chance they’d never seen a funeral procession (especially not one at 5:30 p.m.) or that they’d never been taught funeral procession etiquette.

But there’s also a chance they were simply too busy to notice. There are children to fetch from school and groceries to buy and dinner to cook and music lessons and soccer games to get to and blogs to write and … all this after working an 8 or 9 hour day. We’re tired. We’re distracted. And, frankly, I think we’ve lost touch with the importance of ritual as a process that helps us grieve.

The Western world, IMHO, doesn’t have much space for grief any more. In other countries – those we like to call “developing” – when a parent loses a child or a spouse his or her mate, the grieved person can take to the streets and wail and it is considered perfectly appropriate. You’re allowed to dress in black and hole yourself up in your room and burst into tears at a moments notice and no one questions it. There are funeral rituals that last days, if not weeks.

Here in the “modern world,” we’re not so good at that. We allow for some grieving, and some religions are better than others at offering rituals that helps walk people through the beginning stages of mourning. But as a culture in general, we want people to pick themselves up and march right along as if nothing has happened. Sure, you can feel out-of-sorts for a week or two, but then you’ll have people tell you to “keep busy” and “move on with your life” and other advice that only further highlights how uncomfortable we are around overwhelming sadness. We prefer people pretend that their heart hasn’t been ripped from their chests and torn into a million pieces; we’d like them to ignore the fact that every time they try to take a drink of water it feels like they are swallowing glass.

This past week, the 33-year-old husband of a former colleague of mine died. He possessed a great talent for someone so young, evidenced by his body of work in photojournalism. And, evidenced by the 100 or so people who attended his wake, he possessed a larger-than-life ability to be a friend.

Both he and his wife were journalists, making them part of the tribe I call my own, so I went to the wake to pay my respects even though I didn’t know Will. I saw a few of my former students and expressed how difficult it must be to have a friend who is so close to their age die. One explained that this was her second experience of young death and she had learned something the first time around. This time, she said, “I’m giving myself time to be sad.” As tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she wasn’t going to pretend things were normal when they weren’t.

That’s what we do when we stop for a funeral procession – we acknowledge that things are not normal. Perhaps it seems an old-fashioned ritual, but in our busy lives, I think we need more of it. We pay heed that the world has changed for the people in that long line of slow-moving cars. We pay attention, if even only for the two or three minutes it takes for the procession to pass, to the fact that someone lived and has now died. And maybe (hopefully) we think about the people following the hearse and the sadness they feel, growing a tiny bit more empathetic to our fellow human beings as they walk through the valley of death.