Emotion, pragmatism still clashing in debate over funeral processions

GETTING THERE

October 20, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

Some folks find it easy to dismiss the people who complain about the traffic tie-ups that result from police funerals as heartless cranks. Others have no problem scorning the officers in those motorcades as public-be-damned obstructionists taking part in what one reader called "long, pagan spectacle funerals."

The opposing points of view weighed in after last week's column that followed the services of a state police paramedic who lost his life in a Medevac helicopter crash near Andrews Air Force Base. The Oct. 3 funeral motorcade tied up traffic in parts of Baltimore and Carroll counties - leaving more than a few citizens steamed.

I came down on the side of the police and other public safety workers on this one - with mild reservations. That stance won approval from several readers, including Kirk McTaggart, a 20-year veteran of the Maryland State Police.

I am appalled that citizens care more about traffic problems from police funerals than they do for college football games in College Park. As a trooper, I am most touched by the respect of the citizens along the funeral route who stand with salutes and hands over hearts as we go by. These people are not the ones who are complaining. I am confident that most people are deeply respectful and thankful for our service and the people who complain represent the vast minority.

Anne Hackney of Parkton is a civilian who sees the matter in similar terms:

Not a day goes by without something in the news about a police, fire, or military person who has rescued a person, saved a life or given theirs. How many of the people killed and injured in 9/11 were those valiant souls!

Yes, it was a major traffic tie-up and I was in it but my life goes on and, yes, I heard a similar comment from someone stuck in the traffic.

But what it must mean to the families who have just lost a person whose life has been dedicated to protecting others to see those rows of uniforms, police and fire vehicles in the procession and parked along [Interstate] 83. Perhaps we, too, should pull over and salute!

Some readers questioned the timing of the motorcade, which took place on a Friday afternoon, and suggested that such ceremonies be restricted to weekends to avoid interference with commerce.

With all due respect for the needs of business, the weekends-only idea is a nonstarter. Why? Religious concerns, for one.

In some faiths, such as Judaism, a speedy burial is required. To tell the family of a fallen officer to wait for the weekend would invite a discrimination lawsuit - as well as a public relations nightmare and a likely job action.

Apart from that, there's an issue of sensitivity. Would you want to be the chief of police explaining to a grieving widow that traffic concerns trump the family's needs on the timing of services?

That doesn't mean high-ranking police officials shouldn't give serious thoughts to the ramifications of these events.

Jack Norris, a retired military police officer, wrote that he witnessed the aftermath of a serious crash in Glyndon that afternoon that left a young mother standing next to her demolished vehicle while holding a baby in her arms - with no police presence in sight. The accident occurred shortly after Norris and his wife were "run off the road" by an aggressive driver, and the Westminster resident wondered whether police had relinquished control of the streets to "anarchy" during the procession.

"It's not that I'm against the tradition; I have to believe there is a better way," he wrote. "Both my wife and I really cared and considered the State Trooper's death a real tragedy ... but to see that young woman holding that child really prompted my taking the time to write to you and get involved."

Norris raises a point that goes well beyond a complaint about personal inconvenience. The death of a comrade is shattering, but in the military the mourning isn't allowed to get in the way of the mission. The same should apply to public safety agencies.

While there's no proof the incidents Norris witnessed were connected with the motorcade, accounts such as his need to be taken seriously. If upstanding, noncranky citizens are left with the impression that public safety took the afternoon off, that's a problem. And if the bad actors are deliberately taking advantage of such observances to break laws, arresting the creeps could be considered as fine a tribute to the fallen as a slow ride to the cemetery.

Wayne Monroe of Sparrows Point had the most pithy comment: "The funeral procession in general is an idea whose time has come and gone."

No argument. It would be great if everybody - police and firefighters and civilian - woke up tomorrow with the same eco-friendly thought and agreed on another, less polluting way to grieve.

But human beings need their cultural rituals. And this one is important to a group of people who are willing to sacrifice all to protect us. Respecting their traditions - until, on their own, they devise new ones - is a small price to pay.

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