Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility.
Truth be told, people still don’t like stopping for death. Emily Dickinson knew what she was talking about.
In past posts, I’ve mentioned how my life in the South has shaped my views on death and funerals. If one thing has stayed with me, it’s the level of respect most Southerners show for the dead.
Funeral processions (meaning the line of vehicles that follow the hearse when it leaves the church with the deceased to go to a cemetery) were not an everyday event in the small town where I grew up. But I do remember them. What stood out in my mind is that in every case, unless it was impossible to do so, almost every driver pulled over to the side of the road as the line of cars slowly went by. I remember asking my father why the first time I saw it.
He simply said, “It’s out of respect for the person who died.”
Fast forward to this week as I was doing some Internet research on this topic. I found an etiquette discussion board where people were hashing out the issue of funeral procession manners. One person described how her “DH” (dear husband) was forced by the police to pull over due to a lengthy funeral procession for a local boy who had been killed in a high-profile shooting. A tragic event, to be sure.
Apparently, having to do this was a major affront to her husband. She wrote:
DH was appalled. He was perfectly willing to give them space and be respectful but what about the rest of the public? Are they truly supposed to just shut down because someone they don’t know died?
Yes, ma’am, they are. It’s called respect.
Life is a lot more hectic in this modern age. The pace is faster and people have places to go, things to do. Even in the South, the practice of pulling over (especially here in Atlanta) is something I sadly see less often. The city “too busy to hate” can often be the city too busy to care.
But how often, really, do we encounter funeral processions these days? I see maybe two to three a year, tops. Is it that hard to give a life that has passed a few minutes of respect? Does it matter that you don’t know them?
No, it isn’t always possible to pull over. Maybe you’re in a congested highway and there’s no way you can safely do so. I understand that. Nobody should risk their life or that of their family for a funeral procession. That’s crazy.
But if you can, you should.
One issue I won’t quibble on concerns drivers cutting through a funeral procession to save time. It’s just plain wrong.
States have various laws concerning funeral processions. Some states say it’s okay for the drivers to follow the hearse through a red light, others forbid it. Some states have no formal laws about it at all. But almost all have something on the books forbidding anyone to cut into a funeral procession except for emergency vehicles like an ambulance.
In the past, most police departments provided their escort services to funeral homes free of charge. Some small towns still do. But with many police departments underfunded and understaffed, this is becoming a thing of the past.
Cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Minneapolis no longer provide funeral escorts unless it is for a fellow fallen officer, fireman or military personnel killed in action. So now funeral homes have to hire off-duty cops or privately owned security firms to do it. This cost is ultimately passed on to the family.
Liability concerns are another reason police departments aren’t providing their escort services. Courts in Tennessee and Florida have found that police and funeral homes that provide escorts for funeral processions can be held liable for crashes that occur during the processions.
In Memphis, Marcus Eddins owns Community Motorized Escort Service. In a 2011 news article, he said drivers are often distracted and don’t notice the man on the motorcycle in the middle of an intersection waving a procession of cars through. “I’ve seen them (drivers) texting, putting on makeup, eating cereal, reading a book — you name it,” Eddins said.
In addition, police officers acting as funeral escorts have been injured in Memphis by drivers attempting to cut through processions. In 2011, five police officers were killed while acting as funeral escorts.
A 2012 article in The Washington Post quoted funeral director Archer Harmon when he said, “We have cellphones in one hand, Starbucks in the other and what is in front of you doesn’t matter at that point. They just don’t care, in this society we live in now.”
It frustrates me that people cannot pause for a few minutes to recognize and honor the life of a fellow human being. Maybe deep down, some people are so scared of Death coming to stop for them that it’s easier to close their eyes and ignore it.
In the same 2012 article, funeral director P.A. Wilson said he thought respect for the dead hadn’t totally evaporated yet. “If you go to the South, they show respect. In the eastern part of North Carolina, the people pull to the side of the road on both sides, regardless of what race is being buried, black or white. They still show some respect.”
Maybe respect isn’t totally dead after all.