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Time to retire tradition of funeral processions

Sunday, September 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

Perhaps two years ago, I wrote a version of this opinion piece and submitted it to The News-Sentinel. Wisely, the editors passed on publishing the original because it contained too many attempts at humor when the subject at hand was both serious and somber.

However, a couple of recent first-hand events have convinced me that this recommendation is valid and deserves consideration.

My recommendation is the abolition of funeral processions as we’ve come to know them. Let me start right out by making it clear that people who pass from this earth surely deserve notice and honor, and that I understand the prevalence and the role of such corteges down through the ages. My objections to funeral processions are purely practical and bow to the realities of modern traffic and public safety.

We have already acknowledged the dangers inherent in herding a string of mourners to distant burial sites: When my mother and father-in-law passed away several years ago, their final vehicular ride, from Ossian to Fairmount, Ind., in each case, was prohibited from turning into a parade down I-69 because of the obvious incompatibility between freeway traffic and cortege behavior.

But I feel that processions conducted on a more local basis are just as dangerous and also mix complex normal traffic conditions with an unexpected gaggle of possibly distracted drivers. Consider that a given funeral may occur at any church or funeral home in the area and that interment can also take place wherever the deceased or family has chosen.

In other words, funeral processions are not limited to a predictable set of well-worn paths, but traverse urban, suburban, and rural settings throughout the week and throughout the day.

Other drivers, whether on a routine trip or unfamiliar with their surroundings, are usually startled by the sudden appearance of a funeral procession, and take a few seconds to catch on. Typical indicators are a non-descript lead vehicle, bearing a wimpy flashing red light, an above-average concentration of vehicles with their headlights on, and if one is really observant, the presence on each vehicle of a suitably subtle “Funeral” sign or flag. On rare occasions, police or other traffic control specialists are involved, doing their best to manage the procession.

Still, even the most obvious processions manage to confuse a few drivers who find themselves either driving in the same direction in an adjacent lane, or headed in the opposite direction on the same roadway.

What are the expected local and legal responses? How does one recognize that he has encountered a funeral procession from the rear while trying to overtake the first few slow-moving vehicles? What about the conscientious cross-traffic drivers trying to follow automatic traffic lights which tell them to proceed through an intersection or make a left turn, but who are at first stymied by the unyielding chain of procession vehicles?

My biggest concern here is potential accidents, which have certainly occurred when funeral vehicles and ordinary traffic encounter one-another. In fact, serious accidents have happened in a few such situations, even resulting in injuries or deaths.

One family having to deal with a loss is misfortune enough, but when innocent bystanders then have to suffer a needless tragedy of their own because a worn-out tradition has been superimposed on present-day traffic conditions, we have to consider other options for honoring our departed.

Further, accidents are not the only potential hazards. Just this week, I found myself trying to properly yield to a funeral procession in which one of the vehicles suddenly stopped running and became stranded in the lane being used by the cortege. The already-distraught occupants of the disabled vehicle found that there was little they could do to avoid further confusion. Other vehicles in the procession chose to divert around the stopped car via either the right turn lane or the adjacent driving lane. At least a couple vehicles stopped where they could to lend assistance.

Meanwhile, those of us not participating were left with a funeral procession which now consisted of at least four separated groups of vehicles, trying to regroup, but without the benefit of police assistance, and with the lead vehicles long out of sight. While this was an unusual circumstance, I suspect that few processions travel their entire routes without some instances of confusion on either the part of participants, or those who encounter them.

Some traditionalists may insist that funeral processions are necessary so that everyone desiring to go to the graveyard will be able to find it. But this reasoning fails the logic test. After all, these same clusters of grieving souls all managed to find the location of the funeral. Can’t we trust them to find the cemetery as well? Besides, an ever-increasing number of them will be using GPS technologies to sweet talk them to the right location.

Other supporters may ask if there are not some situations that demand a vehicular tribute. For instance, what if the deceased person was famous or especially beloved in local or wider circles? Would I disallow an exception in such cases? In truth, I wouldn’t know where to draw the line in a representative democracy, but I understand the need for such events. My solution would be to limit funeral processions to those willing to accord legitimate parade status to them. In other words, there would be posted times and routes, adequate traffic and crowd control, and an overall plan which takes regular traffic needs into consideration.

Yet, even the best-planned and most highly-publicized funerary events are subject to confusion and innocent misunderstandings. For instance, I witnessed some surprising motorist errors recently during the well-planned parade in honor of a local firefighter who died while en route to an emergency. Despite intense media coverage in of the timing, routing and constituency (125 emergency vehicles, all with flashing lights), some small groups of non-involved vehicles inadvertently found themselves in the midst of the procession.

The result was that attending motorcycle police officers wrested the offending vehicles to the curb with a combination of siren “yelps” and a vocal tirade. I don’t know whether the motorists were charged, or merely dressed down. Likewise, during the more recent example involving the disabled vehicle, there were verbal exchanges, horns honked, and fists shaken between those who were trying to reclaim traditional processional rights-of-way and those who simply didn’t recognize what they had encountered.

I believe that we should start to place this tradition behind us – not because it has been an improper honor which we accord to our loved ones, but because it has become one in the light of modern-day circumstances. When our efforts to mourn and honor descend into brutish and angry displays by bystanders, participants, and the officials who are trying to help, we know that something needs to change.

Richard B. Hatch is a resident of Fort Wayne.