Southern matters of life and death - Clay Wilson

There are many things I like about living in the South. The laid-back pace, the general friendliness of the people, the food, the funerals.

I don't like the funerals themselves, of course. There's nothing particularly pleasant about paying a last earthly visit to a departed loved one.

But I do like the way people in the South react to funerals.

I've thought of this before, but it was brought home to me again Sunday when I was in a funeral procession.

My mother's first cousin had died. He and his wife, who had died before him of complications from diabetes, were always extremely kind to me. In fact, they helped to pay for my first year of college.

I figured the least I could do was to go and pay my final respects.

The service was beautiful, a typical Southern evangelical observance – full of references to heaven and the new life Jim was experiencing. Then we made the short drive to the cemetery where his mortal remains would be laid to rest.

A police car, complete with flashing lights, went before the procession. The lead cars had purple flags planted on their hoods that said "Funeral."

All along the route, other cars stopped until the procession passed; even people coming in the opposite direction.

This simple gesture of respect has always been very touching to me.

Those people have places to be, destinations to which they are resolutely proceeding. They may even be running late.

And yet they're not too busy to take a few seconds out of their hurry to acknowledge the passing of a fellow human. To acknowledge the grief of the deceased's family.

To acknowledge, as the 17th-century English poet and preacher John Donne said that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

The gesture also strikes me as a particularly southern thing. I know I'm prejudiced since I've lived in Georgia all my life, but I have a hard time imagining traffic in New York City coming to a halt for the funeral procession of anyone short of the President – and that might depend on whether he's Democratic or Republican.

I consulted my roommate, who lived in New York for six months, and he confirmed that he had never seen traffic pulled over for a funeral procession while he was there.

Of course, he also pointed out that – at least in Manhattan – there's not really enough room in the streets for people to stop. And with the volume of traffic that is often on the streets, he said, it's best just to keep it moving.

But still, I've seen traffic on the interstate in Atlanta stop for a funeral procession.

Admittedly, the farthest north I've ever been is Washington, D.C., so I'm writing from almost complete ignorance here. But just about everything I've read and heard leads me to believe that we here in the South have preserved a gentility, a sense of manners and kindness, that has faded in the more industrialized, hurried North.

And as Henry James, the 19th-Century American author, noted, "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."

I would add that kindness is important in both life and death. So I hope people continue the tradition of stopping for funerals. It's a small gesture, but I think it speaks volumes.

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.