Musing on hearses and funerals

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.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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47 Responses to Musing on hearses and funerals

  1. Kelly Hay says:

    This is a wonderful example of recognizing the beauty in cultural differences and respecting that diversity. Wonderful post!

  2. Great post. Something I’ve never thought about. The differences in cultural norms around the world is endless and endlessly fascinating.

  3. sarahnsh says:

    I think that following the footsteps of the people you mourn to their place of burial would give you more time to mourn and then you have everyone with you taking the same journey.

  4. Great post. Efficiency rules the U.S., burying compassion.

  5. It seems to be all about the views on death that different cultures have. The older cultures of the world tend to view death as a journey…whereas our younger nations still see it as an end. The journey to the gravesite holds so much symbolism and beauty.

  6. johnhauge says:

    crispy critter me up and toss me in a vineyard and/or out to sea. though there is something to be said for the classic american last ride. tricked out they make for a nice surf wagon.

  7. Really interesting post. Makes me think of the 60s film Harold and Maude, one of my favorites πŸ™‚

  8. Catherine says:

    This is interesting, I had no idea. I love learning about other cultural rituals and customs. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Traditional hearses are the awesomest looking cars around! I love seeing people (goths) driving around in converted ones just like it was the family Volvo.

  10. I live in the US and have only been to one funeral ever, but it confirmed for me that I hate just about everything having to do with the traditional, American Christian funeral. I had mostly just figured that when my time comes I’d leave instructions for cremation and no service and hope those who survive me don’t deviate from that request, but after reading this post I may look into various other cultures’ funerary practices to see if I could borrow some ideas. Thanks.

  11. Joseph says:

    Very interesting post thanks!

  12. andydbrown says:

    Fascinating read on how the Portuegese honor the dead at a funeral. I bet this comes from the fact that so many are religious (Christian oriented). It’s the atheist/agnostics/skeptics that mostly dread funerals as they are confronted with the fact that noone makes it out of this life alive! The value of human life is at an alltime low in this generation. It’s nice to see that some still honor the life of a human who was made in the image of God. Thanks again for a wonderful look into the Portuegese funeral customs and congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • oregon expat says:

      Thank you for the congratulations, but I must respectfully disagree with a few of your points. Regarding the label of this generation as valuing human life at an all time low, I think the 50 to 70 million dead from WWII might contest that. The doctors, researchers and pharmacists developing methods to preserve life for ever longer lengths might have something to say as well. And speaking for both myself and my atheist/agnostic/humanist friends and family, we don’t dread funerals. I find great beauty in the Portuguese burial customs, because they honor life and recognize death as part of it. When final journeys are such a visible part of the culture, it acts as a reminder of the preciousness of our lives, and the fact that we should all strive to make the most of them.

  13. Munira says:

    I’d like to go out the Portuguese way! πŸ™‚

  14. Sandra says:

    Thanks for sharing this.

  15. clairela says:

    muito interessante! Very different, accepting approach to losing a loved one and honoring them.

  16. tori says:

    What a beautiful description. Funeral procession can differ around the world, but at the same time they can also have much in common. Speaking of more traditional ways of carrying a body to it’s final resting place. In my motherland Surinam, traditional Afro-Surinamese funerals have similarities with those in New Orleans and differ so totally from the Western funerals. and Some Surinam migrants in the Netherlands try to uphold their tradition, even if it might just be on the cemetery grounds. I think the Dutch would have a fit when the street traffic would have to slow down because of these kinds of funeral processions.

  17. Beautiful, thought-provoking post — thank you especially for the strong visual of the hearse.

    Death is a part of life, but in the U.S. we sanitize and hide it. Obviously, it’s nothing to rejoice about, as in a birth, but it is something to recognize and accept, as we all move in our daily walk through this temporary home.

    The mourners walking the departed to the burial grounds is profound, and I am glad that they continue the tradition into the modern day. Thank you for sharing this.

  18. littlepatti says:

    I am 67 years of age. If I had died 10 years ago, my funeral would have been different than I have planned now. Here’s how I went from traditional (no viewing) service, cemetery, headstone, wake etc.:
    One Sunday morning we were driving to church and along the way there were several very old cemeteries which I looked at. The stones were tipping over and many were cracked or broken. My first thought was “what a waste of land”. Then, “who’s left to look at these stones, who remembers?”.
    My parents are buried nearby and I haven’t visited for years. Their Granddaughter goes less and her daughter really has no interest in the graveyard, even though she loves the old photos and stories.
    If I am buried in a cemetery, within less than 40 years, no one will come. So,why bother?
    I am buying a fountain for the back yard- My ashes and those of my husband will be inserted into the fountain base when the time comes. A small plaque will be screwed to the fountain. Whichever one of us goes first, the other may find some comfort at the fountain. When our house is sold, our daughter can either remove the ashes or move the whole fountain to her yard…whatever she wants.
    We’ve arranged a cremation etc. for $1050. Our daughter can book the service, and run the obits in the paper and have a wonderful catered party for all of our friends. Total cost will be $3000. or less.
    I have told her that we’ve worked too hard for our money- Her family can go to Disney with all the money we’ve saved.
    THAT makes sense to me now!

  19. lettershead says:

    Great. Great. Great. I think cemeteries, memorials and funerals and all of the many rituals they inspire are fascinating and absolutely essential to a full life. These moments encourage thoughtfulness, compassion, community and introspection.

  20. You know, as I read your post I thought of a topic I’ve written about before (and about which I think I’ll write again…): what I call “Mobile Memorials”. Not sure if you’ve seen it, but it is growing more common in the U.S. to see people with basically an epitaph on their car’s rear window. Some beloved’s name, date of birth, and date of death. I’m not sure what inspires this – perhaps some sort of longing for more focus and ongoing respect for the dearly departed, since our funerals as you state focus on privacy and expediency.

    What we really need to do is learn to celebrate those we love while they are living, while giving them due respect when they pass.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!


  21. Summer says:

    Amazing!! I love your blog keep up the good work:D


  22. The Perfectly Imperfect One says:

    Wow! That is truly amazing. I think that this custom of walking behind the dead and taking each step with them should be followed more often. It helps with giving the dead the respect to which they deserve πŸ™‚
    Awesome post, congrats on being freshly pressed!

  23. warprinkathy says:

    I also think that it would be nice to be able to see a funeral procession treated with respect and dignity, instead of the impatience and indifference that I tend to see more often than not.
    Thank you so much for showing us that there are still those who want to take real time to honour a friend or family member, and not rush things. After having lived now for a year and a half without my Dad, I think I’d have liked to slow things down a bit on funeral day. Try to get a bit more used to the idea before moving forward with living.

    Great post, I am touched by your compassionate delivery of an awkward topic.

  24. Rex Raymond says:

    You might have been describing a Filipino funeral procession. It used to be so intimate here in the Philippines for people to walk behind the hearse on the way to the cemetery, but interferences to traffic in many cities can be so severe it has not become practical to discontinue it and just have a funeral procession of cars.

    BTW, there are white hearses here where the coffins are carried in full view of the public. Tradition dictates that if a person meets a funeral person, he or she should make a sign of the cross as a gesture of respect.

  25. dlfields says:

    The open, raised coffin reminded me of the old fashioned glass coffins from the 1800’s.
    I’ve been to some funerals where the custom of following the hearse on foot wouldn’t be possible, as the grave site is ten or more miles away and Grandma couldn’t walk that far. I couldn’t either, for that matter.
    At my great-uncle’s funeral someone (not a member of the party) passed the procession. Later we found out that a nephew knew the person and had Words with them.

  26. dannpaniccia says:

    There should be more posts like this. It’s always interesting to discover our cultural differences.

  27. mandymcadoo says:

    When we think of differences between cultures we think of the BIG differences like religion and socialization. It’s interesting to look at the minutae like the design of a hearse. Good job.

  28. This really very unacceptable for everyone that he has to die one day but everyone believe.. look how ? because when a child ask about the graveyard his parents tells that his grand parents are sleeping there and staying for complete rest for the rest of their life and everyone has to come here after his present life.
    There should be funeral and burial after somebody’s death because when it happens once our life asks us that what a short life in this world and what you have done for yourself until now and what for others… did you do anything that can make you legend before and after.
    So graveyard is necessary for those reminders who do sins, violation, and wrong things in this beautiful world, because life is no longer a life, we have to leave everything here, money, wealth, beauty, home, relatives, and everything concerning to this world.
    So commit a good life live a life for others and spread happiness for everyone.
    What i believer is if you wanna life happy you must make others happy, because if the environment is pleasant it will make you healthy..

    So i would like the Muslims way!

    SaEeD RaJa.

  29. I think this custom signifies how much more in tune people are with death – they are not trying to hide it. They are truly honoring this person, their life, their significance in the family unit. Portugese funeral customs are very similar to the Greek customs.

    We, too, walk behind the hearse to the cemetary, the coffin is in open view, and often times, in small towns especially, the hearse is carried on foot, resting on the shoulders of men. The coffin is also open in the church (unless it is not viable to do so), and everyone “aspazoun” the dead, meaning they kiss their hand as a way to honor them.

  30. In the UK all hearses (at that time horse drawn) had to proceed at walking pace for mourners to follow behind on foot, although the rich took their own carriages naturally! We still hold to slow pace hearses and they rarely go above 35, 40 mph on the MAIN ROADS. From my childhood town to the nearest town with a crematorium is a distance of 10 miles and it wouldn’t be unusual to get stuck behind one in a very long queue of traffic; tradition and respect also dictates that it is utterly wrong to even think about overtaking the vehicle. BTW the coffin is on show here too, UK hearses are a similar design to the US one shown at the top of the page but there are no curtains.

    It’s our differences that makes us so great and so human. Thanks for sharing your observations. πŸ™‚

  31. It discovering all the little differences that make being an expat so worth the experience. Great article!

  32. amybeth1 says:

    thank you for sharing, great post

  33. Robin Dini says:

    I love the reverence in this custom. Walking the dead from their memorial to their resting place is a beautiful tribute.

  34. That was a lovely post, and quite eye-opening. Thank you for exposing me to this.

  35. sayitinasong says:

    I like the idea of an Irish funeral, which is more about celebrating that mourning…interesting to learn about different customs….

  36. cheneetot08 says:

    Now that’s what I call adding class and comfort in a funeral car.

  37. eurybe08 says:

    Now that’s what I call adding luxury and comfort to your final ride.

  38. Good read. Actually, here in the Philippines, we have a mix of both – most of the hearse here are covered, then we also do the slow procession. Maybe it is because Philippines was colonized by both Americans and Spanish (but conquered by Portuguese Magellan) before. WOW, this is cool.

  39. Both my grandmothers died last year. I was only able to attend one funeral partially due to the fact that I was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time. I think this is a beautiful custom that I wish was applied in the states. Life is a journey and death is a journey to eternal life. It is a hopeful thing. Thank you for this post!

  40. brandonhutzell says:

    I think this post helps to demonstrate the potential for an over emphasis on privacy in our communities in the States that causes us to miss out on the strength that can be obtained from those around us in our toughest times. Selfishness and busy-ness can steal away life’s most prized resources… relationships.


  41. lbwong says:

    What many may view as a distraction having to live near a church that host memorial services, you’ve taken a positive (respectful) approach. I’ve never witnessed a Portguese funeral yet thanks to your post, I have learned something new today! Also, congrats on Freshly Pressed! LB

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