Attendant leads funeral procession through parkland

What is a funeral procession?

If you’ve ever slowed down to let a hearse and several black limousines drive past, then you’ve probably seen a funeral procession. Perhaps you’ve even taken part in one yourself. But what’s involved in planning one?

A funeral procession, also known as a funeral cortege, is a traditional and respectful way to send your loved one off on their final journey. Like many other aspects of their funeral, you can personalise the procession to reflect their passions, from the cars you choose to the route you take.

Find out how you can organise a funeral cortege, and tailor it to your loved one.

What is a funeral procession?

‘A typical funeral procession is a hearse carrying the coffin, followed by any limousines or private family cars,’ explains Finlay Macpherson, a funeral director and embalmer for Co-op Funeralcare in Grangemouth, Scotland. ‘The cortege normally travels from the funeral parlour or family home to the place of service, such as a church or crematorium.’

The processions usually begin with the funeral director walking in front of the hearse for a short distance. This is not only a mark of respect to the person who has died, but gives family and friends time to join the procession in their vehicles.

These days, you don’t have to have a traditional hearse leading the procession. Why not choose a more personal form of transport, like a motorbike or Land Rover hearse? Or something even more unusual.

‘Before my sister-in-law died, she said she wanted a crane leading the cortege – I thought she was joking! But she was totally serious, so we organised that for her,’ says Finlay. ‘She was also a driving instructor, so we had the crane leading the procession with cars from her motoring school all lined up behind it.’

The route you take can also be personalised; a recent survey by Co-op Funeralcare found nearly 70% of us would like the funeral procession to take a special route. So, if your loved one was a fan of a particular football club, you can ask for the cortege to go past the grounds. And if they loved popping into the local pub, your funeral director can also include that on the route.

‘One family had a motorcycle hearse and they asked if their loved one could have one last blast,’ says Finlay. ‘We planned a route with a long, straight bit of road so the bike could open up and go a bit faster. As long as we don’t break the law, your funeral director will try to make your requests happen.’

Who takes part in a funeral procession?

It’s totally up to you. Traditionally, the order of family in a funeral procession is direct family immediately behind the hearse, followed by close family and friends. Then others who were important to your loved one might join the procession, like neighbours, carers or colleagues.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people who could attend a funeral was severely restricted, but they could still take part in the cortege. Finlay says, ‘We would take a procession past previous neighbourhoods, so people could come out on to the street and pay their respects. That was very helpful, as old friends could still say their goodbyes.’

The procession can also include the very final journey, as the coffin is taken from wherever the ceremony is held to the graveyard or crematorium. If the crematorium is some distance from the church, for example, this journey would be made by car and all the mourners could join the cortege.

If the service is at the crematorium, or the graveyard is in the grounds of the place of worship, the coffin might be carried by pallbearers. Many people choose immediate family or good friends, such as fellow members of a sports team or close colleagues like a lifeboat crew, to become a pallbearer.

Rules and regulations for funeral processions

There are no traffic laws for a funeral cortege, but if you’re planning something more unusual – like a crane – then ask your funeral director to notify the police or local council. Finlay says, ‘It’s not a legal requirement, but it is common courtesy. As long as you abide by the Highway Code, your funeral procession should be OK.’

If you’re another driver, do you have to stop for a funeral procession? ‘There aren’t any specific rules, but we recommend drivers slow down and show a bit of respect – unless you’re on a dual carriageway, overtaking is just bad manners,’ warns Finlay. If you can, pull over and let the procession go past, and avoid playing any loud music.

What should you do if you’re a pedestrian? Again, there are no rules, but Finlay suggests standing at the side of the road and bowing your head as a sign of respect. And etiquette says you should never press the button on a pedestrian crossing if you’re waiting for a funeral procession to drive past.

Finlay says, ‘It might add 2 minutes to your journey, but one day we’ll all be in the car in front. What’s 2 minutes in the big scheme of things?’

• See our guides for more help and advice on arranging and attending a funeral