Here’s one of the sad but little-noticed changes of American life in recent years: People seem to have lost a ration of their respect for the deceased, and there doesn’t seem to be much anybody can do about it.
This piece of Americana was brought to our attention recently by Kelly Donoghue, who knows something about the subject. He’s deputy director of emergency services for Clinton County and also an employee of R.W. Walker Funeral Home.
He says the loss of respect is palpable in the way passers-by engage funeral processions on their way to cemeteries. Whereas people used to patiently wait in their cars for the processions to pass — even through red lights — and sometimes remove hats or place hands over hearts, these days many pass the cars in line and even cut them off at intersections.
John Walker of the funeral home agrees: “In the old days, people would stop and take their hats off. Drivers would pull off the road out of respect. I think it’s all part of the breakdown of family — funerals are about families.”
New York has no laws to govern behavior as a funeral procession passes. Few states do, although some states require that headlights be on in the procession and limit the number of cars to 10. Some states specify that no one will be prosecuted for running a red light in a funeral queue, and some have legislated a speed limit for processions.
In New York, it’s a matter of respect, which those in the funeral business say is on the wane.
Walker paraphrases 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “You can tell how people treat the living by how they treat the dead.” Walker sees the same symptoms in the trend toward fewer families holding calling hours and funerals.
Be that as it may, there is little denying that funeral processions are not held in the same regard these days as in times past.
And, if New York state doesn’t feel compelled to write laws, it’s up to individuals to reinvigorate the notion of respect for funeral processions. “You can’t legislate respect,” as Walker avers.
Let this serve as a reminder that drivers and passengers in a funeral cortege have just suffered a significant loss. That alone should serve as an inspiration to allow them the right-of-way on their journey to a service or burial, if one is unmoved by the thought of the deceased.
Give them a wide berth on their distressful mission. Hats off and hands over hearts would be nice. But a little patience should be the very minimum.