Driving home a couple of weekends ago, I was momentarily startled to hear the sound of sirens blaring as we approached one of the busiest intersections in east Montgomery, where Taylor Road and Vaughn Road cross.
After checking all the oncoming traffic, I realized the wailing was coming from a police car that was creeping forward into the middle of the multi-lane intersection. It was stopping traffic in all directions for the cars in a funeral procession to pass by.
When about half the cars in the procession had made it through the intersection, the lead police car sped away to the next intersection and was replaced by another police vehicle. In the meantime, most of the cars down the way that were not in the procession had pulled over to the shoulder of the road — a sign of respect and perhaps a local ordinance requiring the action.
For those of you who grew up in a small town, pulling off the road to allow a procession to pass became more of a necessity when you're driving on a two-lane road. For me and other country boys, I always pulled over because my daddy told me it was the thing to do.
That got me thinking. I wondered whether this showing of respect was the law or just a "southern tradition." Turns out, many cities in Alabama have local ordinances that give the procession the right of way, except when emergency vehicles (other than those assisting the procession) are involved.
There are a number of caveats to the law, like limits to the total number of vehicles in the procession. Apparently, the local laws with their exclusions were put into place to guard against drivers who were not paying attention to the slower moving procession. In some states, if you are driving in the oncoming lane, you are required NOT to stop when meeting a funeral procession.
Some cities provide funeral escorts to the family of the deceased at no cost — while in other instances funeral homes hire off-duty officers to provide the service and include this cost in the prices of the funeral. Some funeral homes supply small flags to be displayed on the cars driving in the procession.
The bottom line on this tradition-vs-the law is to be courteous, show respect, and watch out for other drivers who aren't concerned with doing the same. Just use common sense.
On the larger theme of funerals, Southern traditions abound, including stories that grew from alleged happenings associated with the send-offs given to folks of various standing in the community.
One of my favorite stories about a funeral involved the death of a man well known for being a less-than-honorable fellow in the small town. In fact, Ralph was known far and wide for being downright sorry. He was the last person you would want to be seen with.
The morning after he died, his younger brother George called a local minister and asked him to perform the funeral. The preacher was stunned. George was just as bad as the dearly beloved. In fact he might have been worse ... if that were possible.
The preacher was perplexed. He stuttered and "hee-hawed" a bit, not knowing how to say "no" to George. Just as he was rattling along, George interrupted the preacher and told him, if he conducted his brother Ralph's funeral he would make a $50-thousand donation to the church.
Wow. The young minister thought about the offer long and hard. He knew that his church was in disrepair and could use the money. But he didn't know what the say.
Finally, the preacher told the brother it was his duty as a minister to perform the funeral and he would take the $50-thousand for the betterment of his church.
George thanked him but quickly added one stipulation. He told the preacher, "To get the money, at some time during the sermon you've got to refer to my brother Ralph as an angel."
The preacher was dumbfounded. How could he refer to the dead man as an angel? He wasn't sure if it were possible. The night before the funeral the preacher prayed long and hard for help in surviving this quandary. He had to figure a way out.
By the time of the funeral, the pews in the small church were packed. In fact, there was standing room only. Everyone in town had heard about the George's request and they all wanted to hear what the preacher would say. George himself was on the front row.
Right on the stroke of noon the preacher began the service. He rambled on for quite a while — obviously avoiding the inevitable. Finally, he couldn't sidestep the issue any longer.
"The deceased, Ralph was a horrible man. He caroused with women of the evening, gambled and was arrested so many times police lost track. He used drugs, stayed drunk and verbally abused his wife and children and was an all-around sorry man.
"But compared to his brother George sitting over here, he was an angel!"