That Last Trip To A Place Called Eternity

I was standing by my window/On a cold and cloudy day/When I saw that hearse come rolling/For to carry my mother away. Ruth Ada Habershon wrote the lyrics for that classic gospel song and whenever I see a funeral procession with its hearse leading cars with headlights on, I know someone has gone to “a better home awaiting in the sky.” It’s some soul’s last journey, and I pull over and wait for the procession to pass.

In this hectic world where we rush about fretting about trivial matters, seeing drivers pull over to show their respect to the dearly departed always touches me. Stopping for funerals is an old, Southern tradition, a custom worth preserving, a custom that says a lot about who we are as a people.

When I rode behind my father who was making his last trip to New Hope Church, I recall oncoming traffic pull over. It gave me a special feeling at a lonely time. It lifted my heart at its heaviest moment. At a time when I felt alone, suddenly I didn’t feel forlorn. I knew that show of respect would have comforted Dad as, without question, it comforted my family and me.

A lot of thoughts go through my mind when I think about this Southern custom. I believe that seeing cars pull over for your loved one sends a message, and the message is this. “I may not know you, my friend, but you are making that last trip that I, too, must make someday. I wish you well and I respect you and your family. There, but for the grace of God, goes me or someone I love.”

In a tight-knit county like Lincoln County, chances are you know the person whose days on this green earth have ended. Pulling over to show your respect for the deceased and grieving loved ones is a tradition. I hope our tradition never dies, but signs say it is.

Why? Well, more and more outsiders are infiltrating the South, and they either don’t share our tradition for funeral processions or worse don’t respect it. And some say the fact that a lot of modern cars automatically turn on their headlights as a safety precaution makes it increasingly difficult to tell where a procession ends. That’s nonsense. Anyone with a Southern raising knows a funeral procession when he sees one.

One night, some friends and I were discussing this very subject: the Southern tradition of pulling over for a funeral procession. I asked a woman whose accent was a tad shrill if people up North pull over for funerals. “Heavens no,” she said. I thought about that for a minute and realized I was blessed to grow up Southern where respect and grace come naturally. We inherit this custom as part of our great culture. And then this lady from up there told me people up North not only don’t bother to pull over, they’ll fall in line with the procession and turn on their headlights to get through stoplights. “It saves time,” she said.

Saves time. What an insult to the grieving family. Here comes some joker getting in the middle of the funeral procession like Bandit Darville in a Smokey and the Bandit because they are so almighty important. As my friend, Teresa says: “Rude!”

So, here we are in a new world where the old tradition that began in the time of horses and buggies is dying. Stopping for a funeral procession began when cars began to drive right beside horses and buggies. People worried that the engine’s sound would cause horses to bolt, and so cars would stop as a horse-drawn procession of buggies clopped by. It doesn’t bother me that the custom’s origin was practical. It evolved into a moving show of respect. But folks outside our region take issue with the custom.

“Not pulling over,” said one outsider, “isn’t disrespectful, it’s just common sense.” Well not to this Southern boy. It’s manners.

As our tradition of pulling onto the shoulder of the road to respect the dead continues to die, I’ve heard that in some Southern locales, police officers will lead the procession up the middle of the roadway. That forces motorists to show respect to strangers’ grief. This bold act forces “outsiders” who feel they shouldn’t have to give up their time or right of way to pull over for a person they never knew to do the right thing.

Thank goodness some fine Southern leaders are considering enacting a law that failure to pull over to respect the dead earns you a ticket. Up in Raleigh where my oldest daughter lives, a lot of folks from the North have moved in, and area funeral directors have seen more and more motorists turn up their nose at our funeral tradition. Last I heard a committee was mulling over a law that makes it illegal not to pull over for a procession.

So here is what our world is coming to. Common decency is falling out of style. It seems we need a law now to take the place of courtesy and respect. You can say what you want about cultural diversity and how great it is but I say it’s a bunch of baloney and an excuse those with no sense of place use to water down cherished, longstanding ways. Worst of all, it’s a simply a way to gloss over the fact that more and more people are plain out sorry.

If you happen to know a transplant who thinks pulling over for a funeral procession is silly, keep your eye on the obituaries. When this person passes on, get in your car and speed by when his funeral procession rolls down the road. I bet his family won’t like that.

Paying respect to the dead is deeply ingrained in our culture and to just let it go as an outdated tradition diminishes you, and it diminishes me. I, for one, hope the more callous members of our society never get their way. I don’t want to see this moving tradition die.

I had a person tell me that pulling over for a funeral procession is not just a Southern thing, and I hope that’s true. Some things should be universal. She said folks in the Mid-West pull over and even get out of their car to doff their hats and bow their heads as the dearly departed makes that last journey, the one that ends in a place called eternity.

Some things are deeply part of who we are no matter where we find ourselves aren’t they. You can take a fellow out of the South, but thank goodness, you can’t take the South out of the fellow.

So here you are on a trip driving to some destination far, far from home. Let’s say you’re running late and here it comes at the worst moment possible … a line of cars with their lights on. You’re in a hurry, but you pull over and wait. When it comes to doing the right thing, you don’t need a law. You’re a Southerner to the core. Southern born and Southern bred, some day you’ll be Southern dead. Here’s hoping that when that inevitable day comes, you get the respect you and your family deserve.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].

  1. Cliff Green

    If I could remember who said this, I would happily give him credit; since I can’t, I’ll just paraphrase the stolen quote. It went, “If you want to know how advanced a culture is, just look at how it treats its dead.”
    Those who do not pull over and stop for a funeral procession are products of a lesser stock.

  2. Tom one issue that we southerners get labled with is racial bias. When a funeral procession passes cars pull over in respect for the dead no matter what color the person happened to have been in life. Amazing how diverse our southern heritage must seem to out siders.

  3. Frank Povah

    Well said, Tom. Who and what are we when our traditions and language have gone? Ask any displaced aboriginal of any country. In Lexington, Kentucky a path is still cleared for the dead by a patrol car, though I have been told you have to request it. In Australia we used to pull down the shades as a funeral went by and people in the street would stop with heads bowed, the men with hats removed, until the ‘solemn procession’ passed. I shall one day write of a great friend’s funeral in Gulgong, New South Wales.

  4. One memory which will always be with me is of the response when my Dad died. It’s about four blocks from St Mark’s to the entrance of the cemetary. Each intersection had two policemen standing, hats off, in full uniform in the rain until the procession passed. Which at the time represented the entire force. It is a tradition which should be upheld.

  5. Johnny the respect of policemen standing at attention with hats off is still practiced in some of Georgia’s cities. It hasn’t been very long that I witnessed this in the city of Baxley, Ga. and involved a lot more than 2 or 3 officers. Mayors and police chiefs should instill this practice with all members of their force.

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