The other day, as I was heading out of town on an errand, I got caught in a traffic jam behind a hearse. This isn’t at all unusual, partly because there’s a church on my block which regularly hosts memorial services, and partly because of the Portuguese customs around burials.
Those customs are different here. It’s one of the things you don’t think about until you run right into it. In the US, you have a memorial service somewhere, after which everyone gets into their cars and there’s a long caravan to the cemetery, led by a black hearse with either darkened, curtained, or no windows in the back. Thus respect for both the dead and the bereaved is ensured by privacy. You know there’s a coffin back there, but you never actually see it.
As you can see below, a Portuguese hearse takes the opposite approach.
Here, the dead are given a highly visible place of honor. The all-glass back of the hearse has a raised platform in the center, with angled sides. The coffin sits on the platform and the angled sides are heaped with bouquets, creating a stunning display. Not only that, but the display is amply viewed by all, because the Portuguese don’t drive to their cemeteries. They walk.
The hearse moves very, very slowly down the street, while the lane behind it is filled wall to wall with mourners. Nor is this an event reserved for the young and mobile; I’ve seen extremely aged people walking behind a hearse. They may be using a cane or leaning on a younger person, but their heads are always high.
They walk through the busiest part of town, blocking traffic with impunity, because it’s understood that if you see a funeral procession ahead, you find an alternate route. The procession has absolute priority. It’s an old custom that has remained intact even as villages have grown into towns, and towns into cities. Only when the distance is too great to walk is the custom altered. My wife’s grandmother lived and died in Lisboa, where the logistics of walking to the cemetery are too great to overcome. So everyone drove to the cemetery gates, then got out of their cars and walked behind the hearse as it passed through the grounds to the gravesite.
I think this is a lovely custom. A funeral here is a slower process, where the mourners accompany the dead literally every step of the journey between memorial and burial. They accord respect to their loved one not by keeping the coffin in the darkened back of a hearse, but by displaying it in the light of day, surrounded by flowers. The start of the journey is marked by the tolling of the church bell in a distinctive tone and rhythm, which alerts the entire town that a loved one is now being honored. I have heard that bell more times than I can count, always around 11:00 in the morning, and find it beautiful despite what it signifies. Or perhaps, given the way the Portuguese have made their funerals an open, visible part of their social fabric, the bell seems beautiful because of what it signifies.