Thursday, August 23, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
‘A recognition of our common mortality’
This reflection began a couple of weeks ago as I was driving down a busy street in Memphis and saw a funeral procession coming from the other direction. I immediately pulled to the side and waited for the cars to pass. However, I was struck by the fact that on this busy street almost nobody else pulled over. There were police on motorcycles heading and tailing the motorcade, but people seemed to pay them no mind.
I am old enough to remember when people would stop in the street when a funeral cortege passed. Gentlemen would remove their hats as a gesture of respect. People would stand in silence until the hearse and other cars had gone by. This is still pretty much the rule in Holly Springs, but it is not so much the practice now in other places.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I recall the sight of long funeral processions, training their way down the highways through the wide cotton fields. When the cars would go by one of those oxbow lakes with the cypress trees that stood out in the water with their knobby knees sticking up, it was particularly solemn and impressive.
Pausing as a funeral passes is a gesture of solidarity. It has nothing to do with the particular identity of the deceased, and is no judgment as to whether he or she was a good person. It is, as the Scottish preacher Ron Ferguson has said, “a recog- nition of our common mortality as human beings.”
Ferguson goes on to say that “Our society, for better or for worse, doesn’t do pausing. It doesn’t do silence, either. Not even in the face of death.” It is as if we have forgotten the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Drivers of hearses report a growing number of incidents where danger occurs because of drivers darting in and out, cutting in front of the funeral cars, honking their horns--even hurling verbal insults and abusive hand signals. It would also be nice if people turned down their music when passing.
Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier has written about the expectation that when new communications devices and other labor-saving devices came on the scene, people would have much more free time and serenity. Of course, the very opposite has happened. Everybody now talks of how busy and stressed they are. People have to multi-task. Driving is now an activity performed while putting on makeup, eating lunch, or talking on the phone. No wonder funeral processions seem an irritation.
Pity the poor driver stopped for a traffic light who is not as alert as the horses at the Kentucky Derby at their starting gate. Let the signal turn green for just a second and immediately the horns will be a-honking!
I concur with others who believe that our displeasure at funeral processions is a sign of our general avoidance of death. It is said that the Victorians never talked of sex but went on endlessly about death. Our culture is just the opposite. We talk endlessly of sex and avoid any recognition of death like the plague.
You even see this in our funeral services. A funeral is supposed to be primarily about our Christian hope. It is a witness to the resurrection of Christ. Instead, more and more people want their funerals to be light and chirpy occasions full of humorous anecdotes about Grandma. Don’t get me wrong, I have endured many a lugubrious (and lengthy) requiem, but it really is more about God than it is about us.
So next time the funeral procession passes, let us pause and show our respect. I like to think of the man I saw who got off his riding mower, and took off his cap and held it over his heart. He had a right sense of life in all its seasons.
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