Funeral processions: Balancing safety with tradition is a growing issue

DOVER — Flashing purple lights, police escorts, slow speeds and an abundance of caution.

Funeral procession drivers must still respect traffic laws, and hope other motorists do the same.

For the most part, local funeral directors say that’s the way it works. Fortunately, those with several decades of experience have to think hard to recall any crash-related incidents.

But safety concerns exist each time a line of vehicles enters the road together.

“I understand people get frustrated and nobody wants to come up behind a procession,” Middletown-based Daniels & Hutchison owner Robert C. Hutchison Jr. said recently. “People are just in a hurry these days.

“Sometimes our guys will get some choice words yelled in their direction when they get out to help direct traffic and see some questionable sign language, but for the most part folks understand and are respectful.”

William Torbert said he’s seen one minor impact in 40 years with the Dover-based Torbert Funeral Chapel.

“Funeral processions usually go slow and people yield out of courtesy,” he said.

Torbert manages three to four funeral processions a week, with the line lasting as few as a car and as many as 30 to 40. The trips can be as close as a mile to Odd Fellows Cemetery, a couple hours to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia or somewhere in-between from Wilmington to Sussex County in Delaware.

“Many times people don’t know where they’re going and focus more on keeping up and staying in line rather than paying attention to the traffic,” he said.

In Smyrna, Matthews-Bryson Funeral Home benefits from a city ordinance that requires municipal police to escort processions to town limits. Owner/Licensed Funeral Director Matthew R. “Rick” Bryson attributes that to a lot of successful trips resulting in “thankfully zero incidents.”

Sussex concerns growing

While most funeral directors aren’t seeing frequent problems, in some of the Sussex towns caught between major roadways, funeral home owners are concerned about the potential for disasters. And in Millsboro this summer, funeral directors approached town council about the issues they are having.

“Growth, it’s wonderful. It makes our town a better town. But it also is scary at the same time,” said Bob Herrington of the Watson Funeral Home. “We have had many fatal funeral procession accidents across the country. We have had fatal accidents in Maryland, right nearby. We have had an accident in Dover where I believe that policeman is never going to work again; a motorcycle officer assisting a funeral procession.

“I don’t know what the exact answer, but I do think that if you try to prop up an ancient tradition and end up getting somebody maimed or killed it is not necessarily smart.”

Millsboro, noted for its traffic congestion issues, can pose a major challenge.

“I’ve gone through many funeral processions with the traffic the way it is and each time getting out is – hairy,” said Rev. James Van Der Wall of Grace United Methodist Church in Millsboro. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it is a bad thing when there is a lot of these grieving people and you try to get onto State Street. It’s not good.”

“As a funeral director, do you have to have a funeral procession?” asked Millsboro Mayor John Thoroughgood. “Can you get the people to meet at the cemetery?”

A hearse travels south on Del. 1 during the funeral procession for Delaware Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd near
Frederica in February 2017.

Mr. Herrington said he has posed that question to families. “More and more families are picking to meet at the cemetery,” Mr. Herrington said. “However, I have families that are, ‘Oh, no, grandma has got to have a procession.’ Well, then it creates a conundrum … because I don’t really have the authority to say ‘Oh, no we are not doing that.’”

Millsboro Police Chief Brian Calloway helped facilitate the presentation at the request of Mr. Herrington.

“A lot of his concerns are mainly … ‘What’s safe? What’s our involvement in this safe aspect?’” said Chief Calloway. “Funeral processions, when I first started, Mr. Watson, he would call us up and we would render aid for traffic to get processions out of town. Typically, we did not follow that procession if it went outside of our limits. But one of the things that we would often do is at least get them on (State Route) 24 and get them through the highway. Through the years Bob Herrington would call me in and say, ‘Hey Brian, if you have someone available can you at least get us out onto Washington Street?’ and we’ve been able to do that,” said Chief Calloway. “As the years progressed as we all know traffic is a major concern, but people still have the need for the funeral procession – the need and the want as well. With that being said, as traffic also has gained so has our complaint load and our need for emergency response.”

“Again, what we have done through the years is just what we used to do 20 years ago. But traffic looked different then. It was easier for one person actually; I could get them out and still run to the highway to get the light, too. But those days are over,” said Chief Calloway.

Looking for law

Noting efforts to have a more definitive funeral procession law established through the state legislature have thus far been unsuccessful, Mr. Herrington offered a local pitch.

“But if under the safety of the town government and the police department there were guidelines …,” Mr. Herrington said. “The state of Delaware, since 1998 we have tried to get a funeral procession law and it never ever gets anywhere. So, we can’t worry about the rest of the state. We live here. This is our place and we need our place to be safe.”

According to Delaware Code Title 21, Chapter 71 spells out that funeral processions shall be subject to the following conditions and exceptions:

• Operators of vehicles in a funeral procession shall yield the right-of-way to an approaching emergency vehicle giving an audible and/or visual signal;

• Operators of vehicles in a funeral procession shall yield the right-of-way when directed to do so by a police officer;

• Operators in a funeral procession must exercise due care when participating in a funeral procession.

“It doesn’t say if you can go through an intersection or if you can’t go through an intersection. It doesn’t say whether we can go out with a ‘Stop Sign’ in the street,” said Mr. Herrington.

Mayor Thoroughgood asked what funeral directors want from the town and council.

“I would like to see the municipality of Millsboro establish guidelines,” Mr. Herrington said. “I don’t want to put the police department in a liability situation where the town gets sued because they were involved in a funeral procession accident. I have worked hard to build my business. I don’t want to lose it by being sued because we are in an accident with a procession.”

“I think probably the most important thing is if you could reach out as a town to these local politicians and help us encourage them to pass some type of legislation where we can do funeral processions legally and maybe even have parameters into it; when it can be done, how it can be done and things of that nature,” said Brian Bishop of Bishop-Hastings Funeral Home in Selbyville. “I think that would probably be one of the most important things, if we could get that done.”

“Our utmost goal is to keep those folks that are participating in a funeral procession and the community that we are serving safe,” said Doug Brown of the Melson Funeral Service. “Is the answer for us to have an escort, whether we hire it out from the state police or local municipality, I don’t know?”

Many questions abound

“But it is an issue, especially for us,” Mr. Brown continued. “We are coming from the Frankford area and Ocean View area and we do come through the town of Millsboro on the highway. We do a lot of burials at the Veterans Cemetery. The development that has happened on (US) 113 with the addition of lights it does become concern. Our first lead car may go through along with our hearse, but if we have 40 cars behind that, what is the legality? Can they continue through that intersection? If they do continue through that intersection and God forbid something were to happen, who is liable? Is that the town? Is that the funeral home? It is just something for the town to think about, and kind of converse and maybe help us.”

“Some people say we just should quit altogether. Other people say we should only have a police escort,” said Mr. Herrington. “When I went to mortuary school, it was in Dallas, Texas, and it was a municipal law you could not have a funeral procession in Dallas unless the family hired at least two off-duty Dallas police officers at the expense of the family so that it didn’t cost the city anything to escort the procession, or you could not have a procession. Sometimes I thought that might be a good way to start.”

“But again, like Brian said, maybe if the council could appeal to the state legislature, to our local senator and representative,” said Mr. Herrington. “Somebody is going to get maimed or killed before this is over with. I can tell you there was a fatal funeral procession accident right along highway 113 going down towards Pocomoke. That was only four years or five years ago. There was a fatal accident on I-97 right outside of BWI where a mother and a baby were killed. We don’t need to have anything like that. We are all going to regret it if we just keep kicking the can down the road and then suddenly it’s in the news that Watson’s or Melson’s or Hastings or Short’s was in a fatal accident …”

Mr. Bryson and Mr. Hutchison both said trips into the rural settings of Maryland can lead to farmers removing their hats and stopping work in the fields when a processions pass by, “You used to see that a lot more in Delaware but you see more people moving in from the city now and people are in a hurry so it is what it is,” Mr. Bryson said.

Police presence matters

Delaware State Police provide about 10 escorts a year after contacted by funeral homes, spokeswoman Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe said. A fee is involved and a minimum 1.5 hour charge required and “a lot of time they are just a short distance,” Cpl. Jaffe said.

While police are present, drivers in the procession must still obey traffic laws.

“It is made clear to the funeral home that with just one trooper escorts we will not be able to cover each intersection and that attendees will be responsible to abide by all traffic rules and laws,” Cpl. Jaffe said.

“They are also made aware that with the long processions other traffic may never see the trooper in front and they should always use caution.”

While “it’s been suggested in the past that we do not do the escort if the procession is a very long distance,” Cpl. Jaffe said, “in most cases the family still wants to have a trooper do the escort.”

When enlisted, troopers are often appreciated for their support.

“Many of the funeral homes have indicated that the family was very appreciative and was honored that they had a trooper lead the procession,” Cpl. Jaffe said.

Also, “DSP has provided security inside funeral homes due to family members fighting over the deceased will or siblings not getting along, etc,” Cpl. Jaffe said.

The cost for a trooper is $68 per hour, plus $19.75 hourly for a vehicle.

There’s no specific documentation of a funeral procession crash incident written into a report and no statistics were available on past incidents, DSP said.

For larger processions such as the one for Delaware State Police Officer Cpl. Stephen Ballard in May 2017, DelDOT coordinated a full closure of U.S. 95 to allow for the procession of emergency vehicles from around the country to travel from the Christiana Mall to the Wilmington Riverfront for the funeral services, according to spokesman Charles “C.R.” McLeod.

“This required closure of on ramps and rolling road blocks of I-95 utilizing DelDOT vehicles which our Traffic Safety team worked closely with Delaware State Police to plan and implement on the day of the funeral,” he said.

Dover Police handle at least a few dozen processions per year and require a 24-hour request notice to assure manpower is available. Spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said there is no charge and the agency’s motorcycle unit usually assists.

“The motorcycle units and any other participating officers will both lead from the front and/or control intersections,” Cpl. Hoffman said. “The amount of officers and the technique used depends on time of day, day of the week, size of procession, traffic volume, etc.”

 

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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