It Tolls for Thee


Rarely am I so moved.

The funeral for my mother-in-law ended. I lined up with five other pallbearers and walked the white coffin to the hearse. We got in our car and waited for the procession to begin. Pam began quietly to weep.

There is something startling about the hearse and the coffin, the physicality of death and the last leg of the journey that ends at a hole in the ground. They may put huge swaths of Astroturf over the edges of the grave and discreetly cover the pile of dirt nearby with fake eternal green, but it is a grave, it is earth to earth.

The hearse pulled out onto a quiet street in Panama City, Florida and we followed, perhaps thirty cars with headlights burning. When we turned onto the main road, I saw cars in the other lane pulling off to the side of the road. I was stunned. What were they doing? Their pulling off was not to make a way for us—they were going the opposite direction. Their action was simply a social ritual of respect. I looked out the window at car after car pulled off and stopped in the other lane. Workers in landscape trucks, mothers with children in car seats, businessmen in sedans.

My mind reverted to a scene three weeks earlier. I was in another funeral cortege—not here in the deep South but in my Yankee home town. The hearse pulled slowly through an intersection and turned left. The traffic light turned red, and of course the train of cars kept moving through the intersection. When I came through the red light a woman in an SUV was screaming at us, angrily gesticulating. I could hear the silent F-word through her windshield. She had a green light—how dare we?

I saw that woman’s angry face as I looked at all these calm neighbors, people who simply knew to honor the dead. I thought, You don’t know Della Ruth Skipper. You have no idea who we are. Why are you pulling off on the opposite side of the road just to honor my mother-in-law, just to honor Pam, and me, and all these strangers?

In that emotionally vulnerable moment I felt love for these gracious and kind people. And I must say, I felt sorry for my home. I don’t think the woman who cursed the dead had any idea how selfish and sad and empty she was. Doubtless she knew what Southern tradition had taught these people on the side of the road: Never ask who is in that hearse and do we know them anyway; the hearse always carries thee.

No one wants to acknowledge this, so it helps to live in a place where social custom compels you to do it. If, like me, you do not live in such a place, pull over anyway. Be perhaps the only one who honors the dead and so lives.

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