OPINION: Respect for funeral processions an enduring Sarnia trait

A funeral procession on Victoria Street comprised of an honour guard of peace officers followed by vehicles stretching as far as the eye can see is captured in this photo taken on Aug. 13, 1964. The funeral was for the late Sarnia Police Inspector Harry Simpkins. Photo courtesy: D.J. Robb Funeral and Cremation Centre

Phil Egan

Traffic in Sarnia has been pulling over to the side of the road while a funeral procession passes for at least a century.

It’s a gesture of respect that, over the decades, has become a distinctive feature of the Imperial City. Out-of-towners notice it, and are impressed by the unusual display of courtesy shown by motorists and pedestrians alike.

To look into the custom’s origin and longevity I contacted Jim Robb of D.J. Robb Funeral Home and Cremation Centre. The company has a long institutional memory and will celebrate its 95th anniversary this year; Jim’s grandfather Dyzart J. Robb having opened the firm in 1924.

Many people are under the impression a funeral procession has the right-of-way on city streets. That mistaken belief, Jim tells me, once led to a fatality when a member of a procession in town was hit while driving through a red traffic light.

Though it wasn’t one of Robb’s processions, the company’s funeral directors have ever since distributed cards to participants explaining the need to follow the Highway Traffic Act and respect all stop signs and traffic lights.

But because Sarnia drivers have always extended courtesy to funeral processions, Robb said, his lead cars, with lights flashing, can often slow down and inch through a red light or stop sign once they see other drivers have pulled over and stopped.

Const. Giovanni Sottosanti, of the Sarnia Police Service, said traffic congestion has led to the complete elimination of funeral processions in some cities, and Robb confirmed Toronto ended them long ago.

As someone who drove in Toronto for 40 years and been horn-blasted and given “the finger” by angry motorists inconvenienced by a GTA funeral procession, I’d say that doesn’t surprise me. The expression, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Sarnia anymore” came to mind.

It was once common for police escorts to guide funeral processions across town faster and with less concern for lights and traffic. That custom was dropped because of police manpower demands, Cont. Sottosanti said, but bereaved families can still pay to hire off-duty officers to provide a uniformed escort.

My grandfather was a guard at Hamilton Jail, and when he died in the 1970s, his funeral received a police motorcycle escort. It was a majestic sight, but one that has sadly all but disappeared.