A raging coronavirus pandemic and a renewed call for equal justice under the law for all Americans has the full attention of this nation, indeed the world. But amidst all this troubling chaos is a Kentucky practice or tradition worthy of note. This past week, my family and I were in Berea for the sad occasion of a relative's funeral.
And, what has always caught my attention during trips from funeral homes and churches to places of internment has been the reverence, the respect shown to the deceased person. As an Army veteran, I've observed the somber, yet dignified ambiance of military funerals, and I've witnessed the precision and pomp surrounding celebrated funerals at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
But, what struck me and others this past week and through the years in this particular county were the individuals, the people themselves, who lined the route from Davis & Powell Funeral Home to Madison County Memory Gardens on Route 25. Blacks, whites and members of other racial groups wore faces of deep respect, compassion and reverence for our deceased loved one. Very few, if anyone, on that funeral route knew, or had any idea of, who the dead person was. I mean, go figure!
As people in cars, pick-up trucks, tractors, 18-wheelers, motorcyclists, people just walking, coming out of stores and gasoline stations uptown, out on the "strip" or coming into Berea from Richmond on Route 25. Seemingly, for minutes, normal activity ceased, and except for the occasional chirping of birds and wind blowing through the trees, it felt as if we were trapped in an eerie "Twilight Zone."
Those of us in the funeral group commented on an older man who had placed his hat over his heart and a little boy who was seen saluting as the hearse rolled by. People inside stopped cars were solemnly nodding their heads as the funeral entourage passed by. Personally, I've never done any research on public reactions to funeral processions. In my travels, I've heard it said that this behavior is primarily a southern tradition. Some time ago, I was in a funeral procession in Tennessee, and I didn't witness the "tradition" I'm talking about here. Frankly, I don't know of the origin of the tradition.
This public behavior triggered some deeper thoughts in my mind. Let's think about it as we grapple with this "thing" of systemic racism. "Systems" are actually people, and without the input of people, individuals, systems couldn't exist, right? Those compassionate onlookers of the funeral procession I referenced didn't know or probably didn't care about the ethnicity of the deceased person. What I want to believe is that the overwhelming majority of those onlookers sensed emotional pain coming from a grieving family, a family much like their own. The question might very well be, "Can that same sensitivity, respect, and caring be transmitted to living, breathing fellow human beings who live amongst us?"
Our nation finds itself at a very critical juncture, at a crossroads, most probably, to determine the future tranquility of all our children, grandchildren and beyond. From my perspective, people of my generation have pretty much done their "thing," whether it contributed to the betterment of the country or not. I don't know who originated the saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" or something to that effect, and for the most part, it has been proven. There won't be any "quick fixes" for most of the socioeconomic ills we're dealing with. It took generations of "mistakes" to put us where we are now and it will take generations to correct bad past practices.
Now is the time for American resolve to kick in, that shoulder to shoulder, "all for one," and "one for all" attitude we're famous for. We need to share with younger groups what worked and what didn't work in our day-to-day interactions with people who were "different" from us. Ironically, progress is continually being made as old, antiquated beliefs held by many of us of all persuasions, "wash out" and die with those who've held on to them. Younger groups of Americans won't be hampered by many of the bad past practices we left them with.
The historic marches and demonstrations taking place around the world have made George Floyd a martyr, a rallying cry, a symbol around the world for racial justice and equality because of what happened to him at the hands of four policemen in Minneapolis. Look at the diversity of the protesters and the movements within movements being highlighted. Unlike past civil and social unrest, many of us have experienced in our lifetimes what's happening now "feels" differently. Younger Americans from all walks of life and races have joined forces, dedicating themselves to bringing about meaningful and sustainable change.