There’s nothing like a good funeral procession, a walking funeral procession. It’s a much underestimated component of a good funeral. Regrettably, most people do not bother to have one at all, these days. Only the famous and those who stand for something get proper cortege. And Romanies, of course; they still know how to do a proper funeral.
Poor PC Carroll probably wouldn’t have earned a cortege in his own right, but the circumstances of his death, and its context, accorded him one. It gave an opportunity for the community visibly to close its ranks and, by honouring him, to assert its values. His funeral was about him and about much more besides, and this is something any cortege will register. A funeral is about a dead person, yes. It is also about bonds of family, ties of friendship, the strength of professional relationships and an enduring sense of community. A funeral asserts that these are interdependent and they matter. The verticality of the mourners, in contrast with the dead person’s horizontality, demonstrates that the living go defiantly on. Death has no dominion.
A day-to-day funeral procession in the UK normally features an undertaker walking in front of a hearse followed by one or more limousines filled with those closest to the dead person. Everybody else, whether family, friends or community, precedes the procession and waits outside the crematorium or inside the church. Why don’t they walk either in front of or behind the hearse? Today’s impatiently parping traffic only makes that impossible up to a point. It would be good to see mourners at least gather at the gates of the crematorium and follow the hearse on foot.
Who should walk in front of the hearse? You will have your own ideas about that. How did it come about that undertakers walk in front? Haven’t a clue. Don’t know why that should be. And given how badly it is often done, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done away with.
Some funeral directors unquestionably put on a magnificent show and create a particular sense of occasion. They bear themselves well, wear their fancy dress with elan and create a spectacle. I can see why that would appeal. Female undertakers can put on as good a show as the men. They can look marvellous, dead sexy, in full fig, and don’t they know it. There’s a dominatrix aspect to female funeral directors which they are decidedly not unaware of.
But far too many an undertaker cuts a dowdy sight, hair bad, shoulders wrong, feet flat, face arranged in an unconvincing rictus. Their fancy dress is costume hire quality and their footwear is nowhere near parade ground standard.
The undertaker at PC Carroll’s funeral was a pretty good example. Displaced from the front of the cortege, he walked, asymmetrically, alongside his vehicle. He carried, of all things, an umbrella. Why? Maybe it’s a local custom. It doesn’t work. You can’t walk that slowly and swing a brolly. What should he have done with it instead? Answers on a postcard,please. Look at the clip and you will see that his face displays no sense of what he’s doing there. What use is he? I don’t think he knows.
What is a funeral director’s role at a funeral? Apart from noting that the presence of any stranger is anomalous, I shrink from prescription. Each to their own, that’s what I think.
But it’s something, I hope, that every funeral director negotiates with each family in the light of all the possible options.
This next clip, of Michael Collins’s funeral, bears little relevance to the foregoing. My excuse is that it shows a funeral procession; my reason is that I always enjoy the dog in it.