There are legitimate problems with funeral processions

Until about 5 minutes ago, I didn’t have a problem with funeral processions.  Actually, to be more accurate, I didn’t have a problem with people engaging in them, but I didn’t like the fact that other people who are not interrupting the actual procession, should be required to stop and “honor” the dead. As I wrote on a friends’ Facebook wall (in an insanely long comment that just kinda poured out all stream of consciousness like):

TL; DR
I’m not a fan of stopping on the opposite side of the street for a funeral procession. I understand why grieving friends and family want to be involved in the process though and I don’t begrudge anyone who feels that a procession is important in the grieving process. The argument that stopping is respectful of the dead is bizarre to me. For one thing, as an atheist and naturalist, I don’t believe in souls, heaven, or anything of the sort. That person is dead. There is no *them* left to care how people react to the funeral procession. The only people who do care…the only people who *can* care…are the family and friends in the procession.

In addition, I find ‘respecting the dead’ to be a poor argument. For someone who has never met the deceased, they’ve spent their entire life not knowing that person, thus not having any respect for them. Why would they suddenly develop respect for them when they die? They don’t suddenly know and care about the dead person. That’s not true respect to me. Perhaps it could be argued that it’s respecting the grief stricken loved ones, which is a marginally better argument, but even then, if they’re complete strangers, why would you respect them?

Another reason ‘respecting the dead’ rings hollow-how many people die every single day? I don’t know the numbers, but if stopping to respect the deceased were important merely for the sake of it, we’d get nothing done bc people die all the time. We’d literally be ground to a standstill unable to do anything other than exist as living statues in a constant state of ‘Respect the dead’. Humanity literally could not continue in such a fashion. It would be impossible. So what we’re being asked to do is favor one particular person at one particular point in time, to the exclusion of all the other people who have died and are having their own funeral processions, or none at all. Looked at from this angel, funeral processions are not about respecting the dead. They’re about granting an enormous amount of undeserved respect for someone most people simply won’t know, for what…all of 10-15 minutes?

Which leads to another problem-what is the nature of respect? I don’t quite have a definition of it, but I do know that I don’t automatically respect someone when I meet them. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be mean to them. There is a basic level of human decency that I’ll accord all living human beings. It’s part of existing as a human and I do feel that respecting the human rights of others is inherent in that basic level of respect. But more than that? Is respect something that simply develops on its own? No. I don’t think so. I see respect as something that is earned, and based on the interactions between two or more people. However, or in what manner respect is earned, for my part, it doesn’t just HAPPEN. It’s something that develops over time. It strikes me as completely hollow for people to stop to honor one particular dead person (and not any of the other people who’ve died) for a 15 minute span of time, at the conclusion of which, they go on about their way pretty much forgetting about the person they were just “respecting”. Is that true respect? Is that a true expression of honoring someone? It feels far more like an archaic ritual that’s performed just because (or perhaps due to the perception that souls exist, and that the soul of the dead person will feel satisfaction or a sense of release upon seeing how so many people cared for them after their passing-again though, this is so hollow because what makes this one person, out of untold millions so special as to warrant this special attention from complete strangers, but so many other dead people don’t get the same treatment?)

I’m not advocating for doing anything to them that could disrupt the actual funeral procession, like cutting through the line. I simply disagree with the idea that stopping for a procession is something that *must* be done. I also disagree with the idea that people not involved in the funeral procession must, in any way be respectful to a dead person. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s actually possible to develop a 15 minute level of respect for someone, especially someone you’ve never met.

I said all of that in response to this post by Josh Slocum.  After I read his post, I realized that I *do* have problems with funeral processions beyond stopping to “respect the dead”.

Bill Mayeroff is a blogger at ChicagoNow.com who wrote a post questioning the practice of funeral processions. Itwas picked up by the funeral-industry news aggregator site, ConnectingDirectors.com. All comments [sic].

“Let me guess, Bill Mayeroff is: 1. A baby boomer 2. A narcissist 3. An idiot.”

“I think this blogger should have this discussion face to face with the thousands of people who mourned and processed with any number of our fallen soldiers.”

“Although the article is so sophmoric that it doesnt earn the time of a reply, I feel I have to. It is all about respect of the dead. Something that the author probably knows very little about. He is an NPR listening, liberal, candy ass moron.”

We interrupt this rant to point out that trying to insult people for being liberal NPR listeners is a tactic often employed by conservatives who refuse to reexamine their cherished beliefs.  In addition it is an ad hominem attack.  The commenter is trying to dismiss Mayeroff’s arguments by insulting him, rather than addressing his argument.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled conservative rant of the day:

“In today’s society, death rituals, etc. are often viewed as “inconvenient” to those involved. But, death should NOT be convenient – if it is, that person’s life didn’t mean much.”

Interruption Part Deux:  I think we all know that death is rather inconvenient. Thanks for stating the obvious.  That’s not the point of Mayeroff’s argument (which you can find here), nor is it an effective refutation.  Mayeroff argues that funeral processions are unnecessary, potentially unsafe, and inconvenient for other drivers on the road.  The commenters criticizing Mayeroff appear to be conflating those involved in the procession with other drivers on the road.  The funeral is inconvenient to the people mourning, of course.  The death of a loved one, whether expected or out of the blue, is very often (but not always) devastating to loved ones.  But to complete strangers? People going about their day, oblivious to the person that died?  The procession is an inconvenience in their lives. That’s what Mayeroff is talking about.

In the grand scheme of things, the universe is indifferent to life (it’s rather hard for the universe to display any feeling, given that the universe isn’t a sentient life form).  No, this doesn’t mean I don’t have love in my heart for others.  I do, for plenty of people. It doesn’t mean I don’t value human life.  I do.  I just recognize that we have no more “right” to exist than any other form of life.  There is nothing inherently special about humans. Any ‘specialness’ we have is imputed by other humans.  In a funeral, the grieving loved ones of the deceased obviously think that person was special, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They have/had a connection to that person that was deep and meaningful.  To see that connection severed is traumatic.  I *get* that.  Fuck, do I get that…as I type this out, all I can think about is my best friend, Micah, and how much I miss the holy fuck out of him.  But my respect, my affection, my love for my best friend is part of our relationship.  It was part of the bond I shared with him.  It was part of what made him special to me.  That bond…that specialness…? It doesn’t exist for people who never knew him.  It really can’t. They didn’t have any relationship to him. The people that didn’t know Micah aren’t going to magically develop a relationship with him posthumously. But in a funeral procession, this is almost expected.  It’s almost as if friends and family of the departed love one expect the whole world to stop to honor of their loved one.  As if their loved one was so special that the whole world should acknowledge that.  How fair an expectation is that?

So, commenters have established that Bill Mayeroff is a narcissistic, soldier-hating, un-patriotic baby boomer with a candy ass he keeps glued to National Public Radio in between ruining everyone’s Grief Work(TM). Except no, they haven’t. I too question the place of funeral processions. Many undertakers would say that’s because I’m an anti-funeral director outside agitator who hates sentiment and religion and wants to force families to bake-and-shake their loved ones. Or something.

The question isn’t whether funeral processions have value. The question is whether the value families find in them ought to outweigh their practical effect on public roadways and safety. That is a reasonable question to ask, and reasonable people ought to be able to discuss it.

From an outsider’s perspective, a funeral procession looks more like “This is important to us.  So we demand that this be important to you.”  Again, I’m not arguing that the death of a loved one isn’t important.  It *IS* important-to the people that knew and loved that person.  It’s not going to be important to those who knew them not, and no one can make others appreciate that person.

Funeral directors are sharply defensive when the necessity of their business practices is questioned. This often leads to projecting cynical and misanthropic motives onto their conversational partners. Everyday, non-funeral-industry folks get their noses out of joint too. Readers wax indignant over the Downfall of Civilized Society wrought by selfish baby boomers/gen Xers/millenials/kids/liberals/narcissists/heartless conservatives.

Too many people confuse what grieving families need with what the general public is obliged to do. When someone close to us dies, it’s often the worst day of our lives. Sometimes the very most important person in our world is gone. I’ve been there. If I could have made the whole world stop when my close friend died young from cancer, I probably would have. But we also know that as dear to us as that dead friend is, the wider world doesn’t feel the same way we do.

This.  Exactly.  For all that grieving family and friends love the departed individual, that feeling simply isn’t shared by everyone else.  Come to think of it, what right does anyone have to compel others to feel a certain way?  Especially about someone they’ve never known.

This isn’t cruelty or heartlessness. It’s the normal state of human affairs. Private loss does not compel public participation.

When someone says, “But, death should NOT be convenient – if it is, that person’s life didn’t mean much,” they’re making a leap. I know what the commenter means: That we too often neglect death and try to sanitize it away, perhaps losing some very meaningful family time.

But that has precisely nothing to do with what strangers think and do. Even if you believe death “shouldn’t be convenient” for mourners—which is rather presumptuous—you need to explain why you believe the general public is obliged to shoulder that burden too. We’re not talking about public funerals. We’re not talking about national grief after an assassination, or the public solemnities we confer on dead soldiers. No one is saying that public mourning of important figures should be outlawed or scoffed at.

That’s why the question of funeral processions rankles some people so much. Common courtesy and decency require us to pull over for a funeral procession. I pull over for them because my mom raised me right, just like yours did. They do not require us to refrain from questioning the overall practice of funeral processions and proposing change.

“You have to pull over for a funeral procession because that’s what we traditionally do” is nothing more than an argument from tradition.  Pulling over for a funeral procession ought to be based on the costs and/or benefits of such an action.  What is the utility of such an action?

So, are funeral processions truly dangerous or inconvenient enough to justify outlawing them? I don’t know because I don’t have objective data on the traffic hazards. But I do know it’s within the bounds of civil discourse to ask.

I agree.  This is a discussion that can and ought to be had.  Disagreement is going to happen, but I do not agree that such a discussion ought to be off limits.  If we don’t discuss the actions we take, how are we to know whether or not they are beneficial or detrimental?  How do we judge whether we ought to take a certain action over another if we never have an open dialogue on the subject?

On my way to work this week I got stuck behind a procession. It was almost ¾ of a mile long, traveling down a two-lane road already littered with blind curves, speed bumps, and frequent semi-truck traffic. It’s a frustrating and potentially dangerous road on the best of days.

As the procession approached a four-way traffic light it was obvious that neither the mourners nor the other motorists had any idea what to do. Cars crept hesitantly, unsure of whether the motorcade would run the red light. It did, and very nearly drummed up some more business for the cemetery. It should be plain why some of us raise the question of whether this is the best public policy.

The problem is not rude, hateful, selfish people who “don’t respect the dead the way they used to.” The problem is that we don’t travel by horse and buggy, yet any time someone questions funeral processions we act like we live in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, circa 1876. Do we really believe that any death, regardless of time or circumstance, should be able to commandeer public roadways? Do we really believe that the needs of all motorists to get their kids to school, to board the city bus, and to do so safely with predictable road behavior should just naturally be ignored because our most important person in the world died?

They may not say it outright and perhaps it isn’t their intent, but the effect of funeral processions is that people expect that THIS death, out of all the deaths that are occurring, is of utmost importance.  It is THIS death that should stop the world from turning, because THIS death is more special than all the others (and it is more special and more important than anything that other people are doing).

No one is trying to deny families rituals for grieving. Surprisingly few people actually hate America, soldiers, and funeral directors. We are asking a relevant and appropriate question: Is there a better way to balance private grief with public administration and safety?

I think that is a question well worth asking.

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There are legitimate problems with funeral processions