I passed by a funeral procession this morning going the other way. (Why is the elegant and old-fashioned phrase “funeral cortege” in my head as I think of this?) Without thinking about it, I automatically put on my brakes and pulled over. The procession was long and solemn. One car came up behind me, and carefully drove around me, but I sat in my place until the last car from the funeral home brought up the rear.

I learned this in Indiana, when my friend Marc Eisdorfer died. He would have hated the funeral procession in the first place; he walked or rode his bicycle as much as he could, didn’t own a car, and would have wished that we had rented a bus to take us out to the cemetery after his funeral.

But along the way, as we drove from the synagogue in Bloomington, Indiana, out to the cemetery on the edge of town, cars going the other way pulled over and waited till we had passed. Even on the wide 4-lane highway at the edge of town. It was a touching gesture of respect, an old-fashioned one, and I remember it well. I did a funeral last weekend for the mother of a congregant, and I noticed how little notice anyone took of the funeral procession going by. Which is perhaps normal, but I don’t like it.

In Jewish tradition, one also stops what one is doing when a funeral procession goes by. The funeral itself, the procession and burial, are all referred to by the word levayah: “accompanying.” We accompany the dead to the grave, and there we turn back; just as we accompany the living to the door of death, and there must turn back toward life, until it should be our time to go through that door.

And so when a levayah, a funeral procession, comes near you, it is Jewish custom to stop and turn and walk in the direction of the funeral procession for a few steps. It is a mitzvah to accompany the dead to their burial place, as it is to bury them; mitzvah not just in the commonly-used sense of “good deed,” but what the word really means: commandment, religious obligation. So it’s an opportunity to fulfill a commandment, and to discharge an obligation. Both in a religious sense and in the sense of the obligation to care.

I have never had the opportunity to be present when a levayah on foot goes past. And you can’t turn the car around one a two-lane road and go a few feet in the other direction, and if you did you’d be interrupting the funeral procession anyway.

But you can pull over. You can wait silently for a moment, acknowledging the mysteries of life and of death, and the love and grief and other assorted and complicated emotions that are probably playing out in the cars going past. You can take this lovely tradition from southern Indiana and import it into upstate New York, because people are people, and rural people are rural people, and life and death are come to us all.