Funeral Lights

We stared at police escorts. The blue lights in the distance were frightening and comforting at the same time. We looked out windows, plain-faced.

It’s overcast in Mississippi. I’m with my wife and my coonhound. We are on the wide porch of a vacation rental house.

This is the main road which cuts through town. There are sounds of kids laughing, playing. Easy traffic.

This is an old porch. The kind my father used to sit on. I can see him in my mind, shirtless, reading baseball box-scores. Or carving a pine stick.

My wife is asleep in a rocking chair. My dog snores beside me.

I see vehicles. Lots of them.

The first car is a police cruiser—blue lights flashing. Another cruiser follows. Then comes a slow-moving long black car—with curtains, and chrome fenders. It’s followed by the world’s longest line of cars. A million headlights.

The cars are flanked by a railroad crossing.

The train is running. The funeral procession comes to a halt at the flashing railroad-crossing lights.

There’s a man on the porch of the house next to me. He’s within spitting distance from me.

“A funeral,” I hear him say to his wife.

They step off their porch together to stand in the yard.

This is what we do.

A few other folks in nearby houses do the same. It seems like a good idea. My dog and I walk off our porch to stand by the mailbox.

Across the street, a woman in an apron holds hands with a little girl. An old man is in his driveway, holding a wrench. Watching. Kids stand beside bikes.

A few cars pull to the side of the road.

We’ve all stopped what we’re doing.

And truth be told, I don’t even know why we do it. Of course it’s a gesture of respect. But why? Why respect a stranger we’ve never even met?

I guess it’s just how we do things.

The string of cars is impressive. There are models of all kinds. Fords, Nissans, BMW’s, a few work trucks. A motorcycle.

The train is still rolling past. The line of headlights grows.

And I’m thinking about the lead car. I know what the family inside it is doing. They’re doing the same thing my mother and I did once. We were too stunned to even cry.

We stared at police escorts. The blue lights in the distance were frightening and comforting at the same time. We looked out windows, plain-faced.

That day, men pulled trucks into ditches. Cars parked on shoulders. People stepped out of driver’s seats to stand. Strangers respected a stranger.

The same strangers who looked at us with serious faces when we rolled past. I’ll never forget it.

The train finally passes. The railroad-crossing barricades lift. The funeral line resumes. It takes six minutes for every car to pass us. Six long minutes.

Afterward, we spectators wander to our houses. My wife is still asleep. My dog starts snoring again.

For few minutes today, time stopped. We stopped it. We did it to remember someone I’ve never even met.

People did this for my family once. And I’ll do it for their family until I join my ancestors in heaven.

Because this is just what folks do for each other.

This is what we do.

28 comments

  1. Connie - October 24, 2017 12:53 pm

    It’s what I do. It’s what I taught my kids to do. It hurts me to see a vehicle flying past a funeral cortège. It makes me wonder if that person has never known the pain of loss. Or if they just don’t care, or if what they are rushing to is really as important as they think it is. Either way, somebody somewhere failed to teach them respect.

    Reply
  2. Michelle Anderson - October 24, 2017 1:10 pm

    I’ll never forget my father’s funeral procession when a dump truck jumped in the middle of it. It made me so angry and still stings today more than 25 years later. I’d like to think respecting funerals processions and many other things is what we do but look around its a fading reality that we don’t see enough of these days. I’ll keep doing and hopefully many of your stories will make an impact and people once again will start “doing”. Thanks

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  3. Roxanne - October 24, 2017 1:18 pm

    I remember my mother explaining this phenomena to me when I was about 5 years old. We were sitting stock still at a green light next to the Safeway, and the line of cars was moving the opposite direction. Until I was 23, I either stopped or pulled over for every line of cars like that–by that time I had been in a few of those lines myself, both in the lead and further behind. Then, I moved to Houston. This place is HUGE–and no matter how much respect you have, you can’t stop for a funeral procession going down a 6 lane freeway. But it always seemed wrong to me–to keep driving while those people in the cars wondered how the world was still turning and life was still happening–because time for them had been altered since they got the news that their loved one had died. Now I live an hour north or Houston. It’s a small town. We pull over here–we stop. And every time we do, we say a prayer of peace for those IN the line, and a prayer of thanks that we AREN’T in the line. At least not this time.

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    • Sharon Hand - October 24, 2017 1:24 pm

      Well said. Thank you.

      Reply
  4. Amanda Baker - October 24, 2017 1:22 pm

    I remember people pulling over for my grandparents’ funerals. Even one fellow who was mowing his yard stopped, turned off his mower, and stood at attention until we’d passed. I’ll never forget the kindness, and I’ll always be respectful of the pain that the grieving families feel!

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  5. DD - October 24, 2017 1:27 pm

    I ride a bike, a lot. about a year ago, I was riding when I saw an approaching funeral procession. I’m not sure exactly what etiquette requires in this situation, so I stopped, hopped off the bike and removed my helmet. I stood there until they all passed. Suddenly the trailing patrol car pulled up and blocked the road in front of me. I thought, WHAT have I done wrong ?. The officer walked up to a car that was just about to roll past me. I heard him telling the driver…If a guy on a bicycle can stop, YOU can too ….

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    • Jmwmson - October 24, 2017 10:03 pm

      DD…It has to feel pretty special to be used as an example of the right thing to do!

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  6. Janie Fuller - October 24, 2017 1:46 pm

    When our daddy passed My oldest brother was a deputy sheriff. As the procession was on a busy two lane road a driver tried to pass us. A deputy on escort detail ran him off the road. At the county line the deputy waiting for us stood in salute as we approached. It was so touching and my daddy deserved the respect. We southerners know how to show respect.

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  7. Afi Scruggs - October 24, 2017 1:52 pm

    This post arrived in my mailbox as I was writing the obituary for my ex-husband’s father. He lived to be 100 years and six months. There are so many ways to show respect. But your old way, stopping to acknowledge a life is worthy. I may not be able to do it physically, but I’ll do it mentally from now on. Thank you.

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  8. Buck Godwin - October 24, 2017 2:09 pm

    “….until I join my ancestors in heaven.” Sean, I really do like that line. God bless you Son.

    Buck Godwin

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  9. Jack Quanstrum - October 24, 2017 3:00 pm

    This is what we do! Love this line. Alot of times there need not be explanations of things we do. They just are! Peace!

    Reply
  10. Suzette Allen - October 24, 2017 3:43 pm

    I went to the cemetery for the first time since we buried my mother. Her headstone is in place. On it are things she found special: 2 girls praying, two wedding bands entwined and a grand piano. Every car that stopped, every head that bowed was appreciated the day she was taken for her last ride. It seems unreal, like a bad dream. See, my mother was supposed to get the miracle. It was our turn. Surely. She was next on the transplant list. God had a different plan.

    And to the kind lady at the cemetery yesterday that stopped her car, got out, put an arm around a sobbing daughter at her mother’s grave, thank you.

    And thank you for this Sean.

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    • Barbara J Schweck - October 24, 2017 6:01 pm

      An angel on earth when you needed her. Never a day that we do not miss our mammas!

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    • Jmwmson - October 24, 2017 10:08 pm

      There is no substitute for the “touch” of human kindness; and the compassion of a stranger whose empathy is the byproduct of having been there herself. So glad God sent an angel to comfort you at just the right time.

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  11. Kim O Washington - October 24, 2017 3:54 pm

    Yep, we do and I will be riding in that line this Saturday as we bury my young sister in law, give her our last outward sign of love and respect. Perfect timing to remember the love we show one another because respect is love. Thank you Sean.

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    • Janet Mary Lee - October 24, 2017 8:25 pm

      Kim, so sorry for your loss. I will be thinking and praying for you.

      Reply
  12. Sandra Marrar - October 24, 2017 4:04 pm

    Another touching story…thank you.

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  13. Carol H Terry - October 24, 2017 4:44 pm

    My mom was killed in a horrible car accident in 1983 in Jackson, MS. It was the worst and best of times. I’ve never seen such an outpouring of love and compassion at such a soul shattering time. When the procession left the funeral home we drove through downtown Jackson towards the cemetery I was amazed and stunned to see so many people on the sidewalks in Jackson stop and turn towards us, taking off their hats or putting their hands over their hearts. It was one of the most beautiful and touching things I have ever seen and I hope the South never loses this tradition that has so much meaning.

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    • Janet Mary Lee - October 24, 2017 8:27 pm

      Sorry for your loss, Carol. Though years have passed, some things we live through, not get over. Prayers for you and yours.

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  14. Juanita Ruth One - October 24, 2017 4:57 pm

    Definitely what we did when I was growing up in the South.

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  15. Candace Cartee Bradford - October 24, 2017 5:06 pm

    Thank you for respecting a strangers life and death. My father passed with a heart attack while he was at the river working on our cabin, he was 63. He was a retired Police Chief, who started out as Motorcycle Cop in his 20’s. He served in WWII on a Sub. He was my Hero and he still is!

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  16. Janet Mary Lee - October 24, 2017 5:21 pm

    Beautiful story and touching. I have seen and done this in many places. But never is it shown more beautifully than in the South. An important legacy.

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  17. Laura - October 24, 2017 6:06 pm

    I am so happy to live in an area where, as you say, “That is what we do”, along with casseroles for birth, death and illness…Where people still hold the door open for old folks and ladies (Yes, we still call women” ladies”) and even other men. …where folks invite strangers to sit at their table when no other table is open. Just Sunday after church, I took my mother to a favorite restaurant of mine in Wetumpka. (They have the best turnip greens this side of the Mississippi-Do they even eat turnip greens to the west 🙂 ?) Hog Rock is a BBQ place but they have a meat and three every day as well. Anyway, the place was crowded as always on Sunday after church. We managed to get a table just after we arrived. I am a people watcher, like you, so as I watching people as we waited for our food. I watched as a white haired middle aged woman sitting with another, much older woman, told another older couple, “You folks can sit at our table rather than wait for a table. We’ve got room,” It was clear they didn’t know each other as the woman introduced herself and the other woman to the couple. As they sat there I watched, happy to see such compassion in this current crazy world. Then I heard the white haired woman interrupt the talking man, “Excuse me a moment,”, she said, rising to go across to the restaurant door in order to hold it open for an old woman with a walker and an old man, walking with a cane in each hand. She returned to the table, apologizing for interrupting the man. “That’s alright, honey, he said, “Seeing that kindness was more important than what I was saying.”

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  18. Laynee - October 24, 2017 8:41 pm

    This respectful exercise is a dying tradition that I’m glad we do in the South. When my maternal granny died way back in 1974, she was buried out in the country. As we were processing to the cemetery that sunny afternoon on the small, two-lane, untrafficked road in NE Alabama, the few vehicles pulled to the sides of the road, as is the custom. Then a strange thing happened. We met a slow-moving car with headlights on, then another, then the long, black car, followed by the line of head-lighted cars that was an oncoming funeral procession. What are the odds of that, and what would the protocol be? No time to figure it out. So, we all just stared, smiled, and gently waved out our car windows at each other as we passed slowly in opposite directions, down the road, each going to our respective cemeteries to bury our dead.

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  19. Marty from Alabama - October 24, 2017 9:45 pm

    And it’s a lovely tradition that I’m afraid is beginning to fade. The younger generation don’t understand and usually don’t have time. Sad, isn’t it?

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  20. Linda Parker - October 25, 2017 2:19 am

    Isn’t it amazing how much a sweet, thoughtful gesture from perfect strangers can live forever in our hearts providing comfort years later. I remember the trip to the grave site when my Mother died, a city worker in a ditch stopped working and took off his hardhat. I will never forget it, pulls on my heart strings 20 years later. I ask for blessings on that guy. Thank you for stirring that memory.

    Reply
  21. Sheryll Ridgway - October 28, 2017 2:50 pm

    Though this might seem weird, this column brought such a smile to my face. During my daddy’s funeral procession, we actually had to stop for a fire truck going by. Our family in the car almost started laughing because my dad would have been following that truck to see where the fire was. I do believe God has a sense of humor.

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - October 28, 2017 3:44 pm

      So do I !! And that firetruck was acknowledging your Dad’s presence. God is great!

      Reply

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