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The sanctity (and manners) of a southern funeral procession

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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There are a million things I love about living in a rural southern town – boiled peanuts, cows for neighbors, waving hi to strangers, (did I mention boiled peanuts) – but not long ago I was reminded of a poignant tradition that speaks to the heart of being a small-town southerner. It’s one I hope we keep alive. 

The Progress office is on Main Street. I lucked up and got a window seat in the editorial room, which means when I’m stuck and need some inspiration I can look outside. On this particular day, it was hard to miss the funeral procession creeping south towards the traffic light – this one had an unusual number of law enforcement vehicles with their flashing reds and blues. I decided to walk outside.  

Not only had motorists pulled off on the side of the road to show their respects, people who had been walking on the street stood still and men took their caps off. There was a brief moment of silence. Georgia code states that funeral processions have the right of way at intersections, and that all other drivers should yield and let them pass, but that’s not what’s happening in scenarios like this one. What I witnessed then, and on many other occasions, is a southern tradition of showing courtesy and respect to the deceased and their families - and I love it. 

Interestingly, a NY Times article “Almost Moribund Itself, a Courtesy Pause for Death,” says the practice had roots in practicality, not manners, but evolved into the respectful display it is today.     

“Back when doctors still hurried to house calls,” the article states, “motorists approaching a funeral procession pulled over so the doctors could pass at will in the free lane of the two-lane roads. But even when house calls faded into history, people still did it, because it was right.”

The article goes on to quote Bill Ferris, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, who aligns the tradition with a southern culture of sanctity for the dead. 

''Every Southerner has a healthy respect for death,'' said Ferris. ''You see that in Huck Finn when they are seeking his body in the river. All the superstitions in Twain's fiction are a part of the Southern mind. The procession of the dead, being carried to their burial spot, is a very sacred moment in every Southerner's life.''

Of course, this rich custom doesn’t translate as well in busier areas like metro Atlanta proper, and some people argue that it’s dangerous to pull over. A funeral law blogger asks the following: 

“Does this practice make sense in today’s society? Should we accord a funeral procession the same respect as an ambulance rushing an individual with a life-threatening emergency to the hospital? A 2012 article in the Washington Post noted that two people died, and 23 were injured in funeral processions that year. In 2011, three police officers were killed in separate funeral processions. Should we continue this tradition given the potential danger, expense, and disruption to traffic patterns?”

  The easy answer to these questions is common sense. Pulling over on Church Street or Highway 53 is a much different animal than pulling over on Barret Parkway or Highway 41, where life – and traffic – move much faster. While a funeral director interviewed for the article says this tradition, “born in a time of dirt roads and full-service gasoline stations, of Packards, Kaisers and Studebakers,” is becoming obsolete in these busier areas, “it survives…in the little towns, and in a few inner-city neighborhoods.”

Good for us, we live in a little town where we can keep this beautiful tradition of honoring the dead alive.