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.

16 Responses to It Tolls for Thee
  1. Matt
    March 26, 2015 | 10:24 am

    I love the pace up here (but less so than I did in my 30’s!) but man do I miss Southern gentility. When my son says “yes ma’am” or “no sir,” or I stand up when a lady walks back to the dinner table (it’s an automatic reflex) it blows people away.

    Pam, I am so sorry for your loss.

  2. Don Livingston
    March 26, 2015 | 11:07 am

    so well said, thank you!

  3. Barbara Miley
    March 26, 2015 | 11:59 am

    David, thanks for this. So sorry about Pam’s mother, your MIL. This was very timely, and so well written. People need to hear and know how to behave when there are no fixed rules to cover some situations. The fact of death and all that concerns it, is one of those instances. Cars stop and pull over with lights on down here in Camden, SC, also, and elsewhere in SC. I’m glad we are courteous and care about one another whether we know them or not. It eases the hurt a little bit. Thank you for writing.


  4. Lise
    March 26, 2015 | 2:57 pm

    This story rang a faint bell for me from my childhood. Was it Texas or Virginia? My mother explaining why we were stopping and pulling off the road, and pointing out the hearse and the cars with their lights on. I felt the solemnity, as well as the need to keep the cortege together. The South knows how to do this right.

  5. Johnna
    March 26, 2015 | 3:20 pm

    I miss the South at times like that, with the simple courtesy and respect – the larger awareness that convenience isn’t the goal, a life lived well and with/for neighbor is. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Joe Rutledge
    March 26, 2015 | 4:21 pm

    A few years ago I stumbled upon your blog. Nearly every post since has given me goosebumps, pause or insight that I needed at that moment. I bet your sermons at St. Luke’s Parish are equally as wonderful. You are pastor I wish I had.

  7. Lisa Leydon
    March 26, 2015 | 10:17 pm

    Thank you David. They honor all of us near and far who love this beautiful family. Aloha

  8. Isabelle Abarr
    March 27, 2015 | 1:46 am

    It’s not just a Southern tradition. I grew up in rural southern Iowa, where most folks honor the dead when the funeral procession goes to the cemetery. It’s very upsetting to me when I see someone NOT stopping for the procession. Of course in cities, it is not as common to see other drivers stop for the procession.

  9. Cindy
    March 27, 2015 | 6:53 am

    Thank you for sharing your sweet story and I pray that it not only brought honor to your MIL but some comfort to your family. I grew up in Panama City and they are fine people. I love that people continue this tradition today and that for a few brief moments the busyness of the world stands still to honor the one in the hearse and the family as well.

  10. Susan
    March 27, 2015 | 7:56 am

    I love how Barbara above said, “It eases the hurt a little bit.” I was in that caravan as well, and as I drove past the cars pulled over I noticed one man who sat a little slumped, one hand up on the wheel. He cocked his head and seemed to recognize that it was time to “sit a spell” and honor a life and all those who loved her. Beautifully written once again, David.

  11. Glenda Cosenza
    March 27, 2015 | 8:22 am

    Beautiful essay. As I am now in my 70s, I think more about the “end times” than I once did. I’ve decided to put aside the money to have a tree planted for me and my ashes used as part of the potting soil. It’s an idea that I’ve seen on Facebook and I like it. I’ll have them make a plaque for the tree trunk with my name and date and an invitation to sit in my shade or jump around in my leaves in the Autumn.

  12. Michael Anderson
    March 27, 2015 | 10:00 am

    Lovely vignette, David, and a good lesson for us hurried folk up North. My other-in-law died last year and Kay keeps feeling the loss. Last night when the tears came again, I recalled this post and took extra time to be with her. We talked about her mother and share memories. I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. The cortege keeps going by and I want to honor all that it signifies. Thanks for the reminder, David.

  13. Karen
    March 27, 2015 | 10:17 am

    Beautiful essay. I grew up in rural Southern Illinois and cars always turned on headlights, pulled over and stopped for a funeral procession. I live in Texas now and many still follow this tradition. I have to say, when my husband passed away, it gave some comfort to see folks, in this busy urban area, pull over to give him that respect.

  14. clark johnson
    March 28, 2015 | 3:22 pm

    David, Al your posts are the top of the line nd this is one of the best clark

  15. Michael Moore
    March 29, 2015 | 8:04 pm


  16. Pam Anderson
    April 4, 2015 | 4:06 pm

    In addition to the cars pulling over, I took note of the sheriff who led our little caravan. As we turned left into the cemetery, he parked crosswise into the oncoming lane, got out of his car, and saluted us as we all drove passed. That meant a lot to me.

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