Originally posted April 2020. Last updated May 2023
I realise that for many people right now, death is a very scary prospect. For many others, funerals will unfortunately be the next step in this global crisis. For me personally, today marks the one-year anniversary since I led the hearse for my late father. I wanted to share my experiences in the hopes that it can help others, either now or in years to come.
I remember that fateful morning, it was a very different vibe to my wedding day. I had a huge role to play, but the focus wasn’t on me, at least, not for now.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mum asked.
“Positive” I affirmed. We shared a weak smile.
Go back another nine years, and it was the first time I walked in front of a hearse. My brother, along with a distant cousin, was taking the role of a pallbearer and I was without a role. Because of my spina bifida and scoliosis. it was certain that I wouldn’t be able to help. Helping would put me in considerable pain, and the very last thing I wanted to do was to be the pallbearer who dropped my Mum’s Mum.
“How about you walk in front of the hearse, with me?” Michelle suggested. I agreed. I warmed to Michelle almost instantly, as did my mother, as did my father. Anything for anyone, Michelle was just one of those people.
On that fateful day, there wasn’t a dry eye in sight. As we walked slowly towards the crematorium, Michelle quietly asked me about my relationship with my Nan.
“How close were you to her?” “Do you have any special memories of your Nan?”. Those, she said, would help me through the next painful moments.
At my paternal grandmother’s funeral, Michelle led the service again. This time, I wasn’t asked to lead the hearse. Instead, I stood aside as the coffin passed. Michelle and I made fleeting eye contact and shared a smile as we recognised each other from before. For that small, brief second, Michelle broke out of her role.
At my father’s funeral, I walked with a walker called Natalie. It might seem strange to have two walkers, but really, it worked fine. People don’t focus on the fact that there are two walkers, they focus on the fact that you’re up there at all. leading the funeral.
Natalie was different to Michelle. She asked me questions about me and why I wanted to do it, did I ever think about becoming a funeral director? She asked how long my Dad had kept bees (we had a bee-themed funeral) and she asked me about my blog, and why I wanted to run my blog. She didn’t have an awful lot more to say when I told her that my father was my inspiration behind my desire to help other people.
At we reached the crematorium, Natalie and I pulled in to the left hand side and faced the hearse,
“As the hearse drives by, we lower our heads” she whispered to me, we did. As I did, I felt the tears prickle.
I didn’t lead the coffin to the plinth, as I had no training with formalities and the aisle was too narrow, I left that to Natalie. Instead, Mum and I led the rest of the mourners in, adorned with their made-by-me bee pin badges, and sat down. With the coffin led down, Matt sat to my other side and held my hand. The whole family sat, hand in hand, allowing the tears to fall. There was no time or place for trying to be our best or trying to be perfect. Grief is ugly, no matter how good you look on Instagram.
The bee badges I made for my father’s funeral
It may come as a surprise to you, but after the loss of my grandmother, I sincerely considered a career in the funeral industry. Death doesn’t scare me, but dying does. I visited my grandmother in the Chapels of Rest after her passing, and it was beautifully peaceful. The staff are there, Michelle was there, and she was ever so helpful. What put me off was the thought of having to attend an embalming. Not unlike the fact that having to attend a post mortem ruined my desire for a career in forensic science. I can’t stand the sight of pig’s blood and CGI effects on screen, nevermind a real, once-living human.
The one feeling I did feel, along with grief, was immense pride. Being asked to lead your loved one on their final journey is a huge honour, and not one that should be taken lightly. The odd thing about walking in front of a hearse is that you almost forget that it’s a hearse. Part of you feels like you’re just holding up the traffic, and part of you perhaps feels like you’re out for a walk with everyone watching you. It can be unnerving, so it’s really important that you hold it together.
A Few Do’s & Don’ts
- Don’t try to match up to the funeral director, if you have one. They have been trained how to dress and conduct themselves. You can’t match up to them, so don’t try. Instead, remain polite and respectful to everyone attending, and find your own appropriate outfit to wear.
- Don’t walk too fast, the hearse is restricted to about 3kph and the mourners can’t walk any faster, so now is the time to go slow. Try to walk at a slow, steady pace, but don’t slouch or dawdle. Back straight, shoulders back, chin up, always. As you approach the mourners, it’s okay to look down – nobody wants to be eyeballed when they’re crying.
- Don’t use left, together, right, together either. It’s a funeral, not your wedding day.
- Don’t wear sandals or stiletto heels. You will need smart, comfortable, practical shoes.
- Don’t accept the role if you’re at all worried that you will ugly cry all the way to the church. Step aside and have a good cry once you get there by all means, but try to hold it together for the procession.
- Don’t great other mourners with a big cheesy grin. A polite smile and a nod is more than enough, this isn’t a party or another happy occasion. Even if your loved one wanted a celebration of life, some people may be finding the loss harder to deal with, so you’ll want to be respectful to everyone’s feelings. Grief is a very individual experience, and not everyone may be feeling as cheery as you do.
- Do treat this like being asked to be a best man or a bridesmaid, but accept that you will have to buy your own outfit and accessories. It’s a big honour, so take plenty of time to plan and perfect your outfit.
- Do dress in a respectful fashion. Mini skirts and jeans are not fit for a funeral!
- Do take some time to consider whether you feel you can fulfil the role. It’s a big ask, and it’s okay to refuse if you don’t feel as though you can handle the pressure.
- Do be aware that you will need a level of confidence for the part. When you arrive at the chapel, you will be one of the first people that mourners see. Even if nobody is judging you, they are still noticing you. If you suffer with extreme social anxiety, please seriously reconsider this role.
- Do consider how you conduct yourself before, during and after the procession. It is not appropriate for you to be swearing, drinking or smoking in front of the hearse or as soon as you arrive. This is about paying respects, and cussing, drinking or lighting a cigarette might seem disrespectful or selfish to some people. A lot of mourners who smoke usually have a cigarette after the funeral to help relieve the stress, that would be the time to join them.
- Do be aware that a lot of funeral directors have a good sense of humour and they may make you laugh or smile. It’s part of a way of coping with the sadness of loss for them, and a way that they can support those who are grieving. It’s okay to laugh or smile, but now is not the time for starting up a social conversation.
I hope this post will help you during these most painful moments in life. Perhaps you have never thought about walking in front of a hearse, but you might like to offer to fulfil the role for a loved one? As hard as the conversation may be to have, it can be very touching for your family to know that you will be personally involved for their final journey.
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Until next time.
Stay safe & take care.
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