Respecting death; Valuing life

This afternoon we were driving to a house blessing. We got off the interstate and were on a divided four-lane highway for a good while. At some point I noticed that there seemed to be a few cars pulled off the road on the opposite side. I took a good look at the road ahead of us and realized we were gaining on a funeral procession. More and more cars were pulled off on the other side of the road. We slowed down so there was some space between us and the procession which was being brought up in the rear by two motorcycles, one in each lane. This went on for several miles. Only one person sped past on the other side of the road; every single other car had pulled off. And again, this was a divided highway. Two cars passed us but were blocked by the motorcycles. I thought how clever it was of the people heading to the burial to arrange for those motorcycles in the back.

Soon we came to another highway and the procession headed off to the south. To my surprise, the two motorcycles kept going straight – they hadn’t been part of the procession at all. They had just volunteered to be the honor guard. Even more surprising, one of the motorcycles headed off rather quickly and left the other. They hadn’t even been together.

I thought of all those cars – quite a good number – pulling off the road. I don’t know where all in the country (or around the world) you are likely to see this, but this is traditional in the south. The dead and the mourning are respected. When I was making the short drive from my grandparent’s house in Apalachicola, Florida to the Catholic church for my grandfather’s funeral, we formed a procession headed up by a police car with its lights on. My father was driving and I was looking out the window, seeing how familiar and at the same time how strange everything looked. As we drove slowly through the residential streets, people stopped what they were doing. A man working on the roof of a house put his hammer down, took off his hat, and bowed his head. Other men working in yards did the same. Cars stopped. 

Disrespect for the dead leads to disrespect for the living. When you don’t respect death you don’t value life. Pro-life talk generally centers on abortion, photos of living, or sadly, dismembered babies on posters. I think abortion is such a horrifying thing and nightmarish thing that it is naturally the center of the pro-life activity. But pro-life means all life, not just life before birth. It means caring for our children, caring for our neighbors, for the homeless, the insane, the lonely, the widowed, the orphaned, the strangers, the immigrants, the elderly, the mentally and physically handicapped, the ill, the suffering, the dying: in short, everyone. Plowing people into mass graves, starving the helpless to death, and butchering babies before birth are one and the same.

When I think on all these things, it is the words that my brother spoke back in 2003 that come to mind. He was only 25 and working in a mortuary affairs unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom. [This unit was responsible for recovering, identifying and processing fallen soldiers to send back to the U.S.]

The Marines of the mortuary affairs company follow strict rules and
military traditions when handling the bodies of fallen servicemembers.

go by the old traditions of handling bodies of a fallen brother,” said
Smith. “You don’t stand over the remains. You don’t walk over the
remains. That’s for friend or enemy.

“We give the dead Iraqi soldier the same respect we would give our own Marine. They are warriors, just like us.”

mortuary affairs Marines take their job seriously because they aren’t
doing this for themselves; they are doing it for fallen comrades, their
friends and families.

“Our CO told us before he left that you can
judge a civilization by how they treat their children, their elderly and
their dead
,” Smith said. “The last part is our job.”

By these standards, how would others judge our civilization? 

3 thoughts on “Respecting death; Valuing life

  1. What a moving post!
    When my father's funeral procession wound through streets that had been, in his youth, the countryside he loved so much, we had the same experience of people stopping to doff hats, or just stand quietly as we passed. It meant more than they knew.


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