Long String of Cars

It’s overcast. I’m on the wide porch of a friend’s house, chewing the fat on a vacation weekend. The house is perched on a little main road which cuts through a nondescript small town.

There are sounds of kids laughing and playing. Easy traffic. A dog barking. Lawnmowers running. A distant radio.

My wife is inside with everyone else, small bursts of laughter come from indoors. I’m on a rocking chair counting cars.

This is an old porch. The kind my father used to sit on. I can almost see his ghost, shirtless, reading baseball box-scores. Or carving a pine stick without any real reason for doing such.

And all of a sudden I see vehicles. Lots of them. A chain of wheels and bumpers that stretches backward to the tree line.

The first car is a police cruiser—lightbar flashing, driving at a dirge-like pace. Another patrol car follows. Then comes a slow-moving, extended Cadillac, black, with funeral curtains, and chrome fenders. The Caddy is followed by the world’s longest procession of traffic, each car with its high beams on. A gazillion headlights. Maybe more.

The cars are soon flanked by a railroad crossing. The train is about to run. The barricades close, and the procession’s lead car slows to a halt at the gate.

The faroff whistle sounds out train-whistle code—two long, one short, one long. Earth rumbles beneath the diesel locomotive’s power. The motorcade begins to accumulate more vehicles behind the Cadillac while waiting for the train to pass.

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

“A funeral,” I hear him say to his grandson over the din of the passing train as he opens his front door.

They step off their porch together to stand barefoot in the front yard while cars pass and the procession gets longer.

“Why’re we standing here like this, Grandpa?” says the kid.

“Because this is what we do,” he says.

A few other folks in nearby yards do the same. My friend and I walk off the porch to stand by the mailbox. Across the street, a woman stands at the curb, wearing an apron, holding hands with a little girl. Kids stand beside bikes. A few cars pull to the side of the road.

The whole world has stopped for this column of cars. And everyone is reverent.

Truthfully, I can’t even explain why we do this. Of course I know it’s a traditional gesture of respect for the decedent. But why? Why do we respect a stranger we’ve never even met?

Most of the time we humans are selfish, argumentative, and self-important people. But when a funeral procession passes, we are kind and gracious. Why can’t we be that way all the time?

The string of cars becomes more impressive. There are models of all kinds. Fords, Nissans, BMWs, a few work trucks. A Harley.

The train is still rolling by while the line of auto headlights grows.

And I’m thinking about that lead vehicle. Because I happen to 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 our police escorts and our procession of vehicles in slack jawed amazement. The blue lights in the distance were frightening and comforting at the same time. We looked out the windows, numb from the novocaine of grief, unsure whether to feel honored or embarrassed. Or both.

That day long ago, men pulled trucks into ditches. Cars parked on shoulders. People stepped out of driver’s seats to stand on the roadside. Strangers respected a stranger, who just happened to be my old man.

Those strangers looked at us with serious, condolent faces when we rolled past. I’ll never forget it. Not for as long as I breathe.

The train finally finishes its crossing. The railroad barricades lift. The funeral cavalcade resumes. It takes almost six minutes for every car to pass us.

Six.

Afterward, we spectators wander into our respective houses. Our lives go on. Once again, my life moves forward like a keg rolling downhill, going faster each year. But for a few minutes today, time stopped. And we were the ones who stopped it. We did this on purpose, to remember someone we’ve never met.

People once did this for my family. I will do it for their family. And together we’ll do it for yours. And we’ll keep doing this until we join our forebears someday. For this is the gift we give to each other. It’s not much, but it counts.

Because, like the man said, this is what we do.

37 comments

  1. Bill Harris - May 29, 2021 8:17 am

    Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  2. Barbara - May 29, 2021 10:23 am

    A comforting showing of respect. Such a small gesture but meaningful.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn Ward Vance - May 29, 2021 10:36 am

    I remember riding in my grandfather’s funeral procession when an old man stopped his truck, got OUT of the truck, took off his hat and put it over his heart until we were past. Like you and the others, he showed respect for someone he didn’t know. I think, at that moment, we see our own mortality and the mortality of our family members. My husband hated stopping for red lights and his procession was right through the middle of the day, through the middle of town….we didn’t stop for ANY lights and had a police escort, as well. He would have LOVED it~!

    Reply
  4. Karen Holderman - May 29, 2021 10:58 am

    A beautiful way of showing respect.

    Reply
  5. Debbie - May 29, 2021 11:10 am

    That’s what I love about the South…

    Reply
  6. Suzanne Miller - May 29, 2021 11:31 am

    Sean, So many times after reading your thoughts I want to sit and have a conversation with you. Your words have made me feel every emotion these past several years. Moving across the country from LA to the Georgia coast several years ago was huge.
    But each morning that I read your words I feel at home. Thank You!
    Suzanne

    Reply
  7. Cheryl Andrews - May 29, 2021 11:39 am

    Beautiful! Thank you!

    Reply
  8. joan moore - May 29, 2021 11:42 am

    Sean, I can’t say it enough, never stop giving us the gift of the insights into your heart.

    Reply
  9. Debbie g - May 29, 2021 11:50 am

    That’s why I love the South and our Southern boy telling the stories Thank you Sean and ms Miller Welcome Glad to have you Love to all ❤️

    Reply
  10. Bobby - May 29, 2021 12:53 pm

    Yep, because this is what we do. ❤️🇺🇸

    Reply
  11. Laurie Ulrich - May 29, 2021 1:00 pm

    I happen to live on a street that is a direct route from the local Roman Catholic church to the commonly-used cemetery. No one ever taught me to stand in honor of a funeral procession, but it seems the ONLY appropriate response: to honor the fact that the rhythm of life and death is larger than any of us, and common to all. Each time I stand to honor a passing procession, it hits me in my soul and connects me to all humanity–though I never know the deceased or the grieving family. Thank you for this column~

    Reply
  12. Denise Walker - May 29, 2021 1:01 pm

    You don’t see this much anymore, especially north of the Mason-Dixon. Why, I wonder? Thanks for bringing back memories of the ‘good old days’ when people were courteous and caring. Sadly, we’ve lost some of this.

    Reply
  13. Connie - May 29, 2021 1:04 pm

    I think this is a Southern thing. And even here it seems to be waning. But as long as I live, I will pull over for a funeral procession as will my kids and grandkids. I hope they teach it to their children. Like you said, it’s just what we do.

    Reply
  14. Dot Coltrane - May 29, 2021 1:14 pm

    A native Georgian now living in Alabama, I cherish the respect total strangers give to funeral processions. In a divided country, we still do this. My dream is that such gestures will become the norm. This is beautiful, powerful writing, Sean. Keep feeding our souls.

    Reply
  15. Helen De Prima - May 29, 2021 1:27 pm

    The saddest sight is a funeral cortege with only a handful of cars.

    Reply
    • satartia - May 29, 2021 1:49 pm

      Once you get old enough, most of your friends and many family members are gone before you. That may explain some smaller corteges…. Still sad to be one of the last of your group or family……

      Reply
    • Pondcrane - May 29, 2021 6:46 pm

      I believe the short ones are for folks that have had a really long awesome life.

      Reply
  16. Bobby - May 29, 2021 1:30 pm

    Soon to be 66 years old and remember doing this as a young boy and continue to do it to this day. We show our respect to those who have come and gone because that’s the way it should be. We are all Gods children and we are all waiting on that day when we reach our final home. You touch hearts and souls Sean and we all hope you never stop doing what you do oh so well my friend…..

    Reply
  17. Jan - May 29, 2021 1:32 pm

    Beautiful. Your descriptions are so simple yet so powerful. Thank you, Sean.

    Reply
  18. Sarah - May 29, 2021 1:52 pm

    ♥️

    Reply
  19. Bobbie - May 29, 2021 2:29 pm

    Thanks for the reminder….This is what we do. As you say, “why can’t we do this all the time? Be kind and respectful. Not wait till they’re gone, but do it for the living! What a difference that would make in this world we live in today. Thanks again Sean, for your simple but profound words. Always with such meaning and compassion. God bless you❤️🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

    Reply
  20. Jenny Young - May 29, 2021 2:38 pm

    I don’t remember people stopping for all the funeral processions I’ve ridden in. I remember as a child being in one in southern WV…the line of cars ahead & behind so long I couldn’t see the end even on the straight stretches. I started to count the cars & my mother hushed me…”Don’t do that! It’s bad luck to count the cars…someone else will die.” She was dead serious….no pun intended.

    I live in Arkansas now & the nearest town has 5 lanes running through it, a center turning lane with two lanes going each way. But cars still pull over & stop for funeral processions. It’s a main highway so lots of traffic traveling through from other areas. You can see confusion with some out of towners(most northerners….do they not do this int he north?) ….not understanding what’s going on. I hope we educate them.

    Reply
    • Becky - May 31, 2021 4:10 pm

      Very moving. Your story reminded me of one of the most touching moments of my father’s funeral. Seeing all the cars stopped on the side of the road to honor someone they didn’t know moved me immensely. If only we cared about each this much all the time. But you are right, this only seems to be a tradition in the south.

      Reply
  21. Linda Holmes - May 29, 2021 3:20 pm

    I remember very well being in the country in Alabama or Georgia when I was a lot younger than I am now. We would pull over, watching cars go by in a funeral procession. One of my uncles would dare someone not to stop by pulling over on the road to block their passage. Today you might get shot! Another thing I observed was the driver of a vehicle lifting his index finger or four fingers to a car we were meeting. Didn’t matter if you knew them or not. People were friendlier than now and greeted each other. I have retired and moved to the country and I’m making that gesture. Trying to hold up a tradition.

    Reply
  22. Christina - May 29, 2021 4:04 pm

    In a way, we pause and honor the stories every day in this porch of yours. Thanks Sean

    Reply
  23. Linda Moon - May 29, 2021 4:53 pm

    “Why do we respect a stranger we’ve never even met.” I stopped reading there and contemplated what my answer would be. “We’re all in this together” was the answer I found. And then I continued reading and realized you seem to agree. So, together we give respect when the deal goes down for others because we ALL live, then eventually leave this earthly domain. Beautiful, columnist.

    Reply
  24. Anne - May 29, 2021 5:04 pm

    Love your column and your books! I am presently reading The Incredible Winston Browne. It’s delightful – laugh out loud funny and touching and endearing.
    Thank you for making my heart feel lighter.

    Reply
  25. Susan Corbin - May 29, 2021 5:21 pm

    A beautiful thing, Sean. This is what we do: hold onto a button while the precession passes. I grew up in Baltimore, MD.

    Reply
  26. Roger Hays - May 29, 2021 5:43 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  27. Al Cato - May 29, 2021 6:00 pm

    A show of respect is a diminishing tradition sadly. This morning my family and I went to the Georgia National Cemetery to place flags at the tombstones of those interred there. It’s almost Memorial Day. The beauty, quiet and serenity is overwhelming. It’s another tradition that’s being minimalized. I’m thankful for these traditions and I’ll do my part to continue them. Thank you Sean for fighting against the tide by continuing to share the goodness that still remains in our country and people.

    Reply
  28. Christopher Spencer - May 29, 2021 6:32 pm

    Funeral processions in the South. A show of respect for someone we don’t even know.

    Why? Because whether we know them or not, we know they and their families are just like us.
    They hurt when a loved one dies.
    Our standing beside the road, stopping our cars, sometimes heads bowed or hand over our heart, we hope our show of respect will ease their pain.

    And like Sean says, why can’t we be like that to everyone everyday?
    Chris

    Reply
  29. MAM - May 29, 2021 6:36 pm

    I’m afraid that loosed the tears! So sweet and respectful. Thank you, Sean, as always for the meaningful stories told in a manner that places us almost there with you.

    Reply
  30. Holly Decherd - May 29, 2021 7:04 pm

    My friend introduced you to me, and this is my first blog from you to my mailbox. I read up on you and learned of your dad’s death. Through my teary eyes, I recalled the day we buried our oldest son to cancer, age 36, a wife and two hard fought-for little girls. It was a record 107 degrees at the time of the burial. People came anyway to hug the heartbroken parents standing in the sunshine, sweating through their best clothes. And that was after the church had been overflowing with a crowd not seen even at high holidays.

    And it reminded me of when my wonderful mother-in-law who had a birthday party at the age of 100, dying not long after and not aware of the tribute being paid to her in her best dress in her wheelchair at her party. The helper staffers there who came to hug her and fawn over her were the least likely persons to expect doing that, having the lowest of the low jobs there on her skilled nursing floor. They had no idea how appropriate their attention was for this woman who, a widow since her mid-forties, had reared her three sons with little wherewithal besides two jobs, hand making their clothes, and lots of grit and determination, seeing all three through med school on scholarships and jobs. Of all the things getting lost in our fast-changing culture, I pray that this respect for life is never lost. In a upside down way, it lifts the spirit.

    Reply
  31. Bill - May 29, 2021 7:12 pm

    Gives you much to think about. When life ends, what happens next?

    Reply
  32. Karen - May 29, 2021 8:29 pm

    xo

    Reply
  33. Susan Wold - May 30, 2021 2:43 am

    That is a beautiful gesture Sean. I was truly touched by it, down to my core.

    Reply
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