By The Associated Press
GULFPORT — Funeral processions area time-honored tradition in the South, but the customary show of respect is dying in some cities.
The Gulfport Police Department recently decided to limit funeral processions to five cars, a move that has upset people who believe the policy represents the untimely death of a tradition steeped in Southern Culture.
Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford said the decision was made over concerns about public safety, manpower and liabilities. The funeral escorts are handled by on-duty officers.
The only exceptions to the five-car rule are processions for first-responders who die on duty or soldiers killed in combat.
The decision met heavy criticism from some who feel deprived of a traditional show of respect. Others say the change will reduce traffic congestion and the risk of accidents.
For years, the sight of a hearse followed by cars with headlights on has been an immediate sign for motorists to pull over and stop as a show of respect.
However, a Sun Herald newspaper review of trends nationwide shows many law enforcement agencies — even in the Deep South — have gotten out of the funeral escort business over the past decade.
Police in Jackson, Mississippi’s most populous city, haven’t had police-led funeral processions for the general public in several years.
“We figured out some time ago that if we didn’t quit doing them, we’d have more officers on funeral escorts than out on the street,” said Jackson Police Sgt. Joseph Cotton. “We were inundated with requests.”
Some agencies, such as the police department in Shreveport, La., charge for funeral escorts. The average charge is $200 per funeral.
Historically, no limits were set on the number of vehicles that could be included in a procession led by Gulfport police. Often, one funeral could require up to eight officers, and officers — who also patrol the streets — often worked up to six funerals a day.
“We’ve got to do more with less,” Weatherford said.
The tradition of police-led funeral processions has died in just about every metropolitan city in the nation. Las Vegas doesn’t allow funeral processions at all.
Private companies provide funeral escorts in the majority of areas where police don’t provide them. The charges are billed to the funeral home, which passes the cost to its clients.
Gulfport police officials instituted the policy in letters to six funeral home companies after a meeting with their representatives. The only option, Weatherford said, was to eliminate police-led funeral processions altogether. Funeral home representatives voted in favor of a five-car limit, the police chief said.
Bubba Lang of Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes said he supports the change.
“It’s a good policy from a safety issue,” Lang said. “It’s like anything else, especially in the South. It takes a while to change what’s been a tradition a long time.”
Hunter Jordan, president of the Mississippi Funeral Directors Association, said it’s up to individual law enforcement agencies to decide those policies.
“There is not a state law that says police or deputies must escort funeral processions,” said Jordan, of Kosciusko. “Police in small towns probably have a lot more leeway than those in metropolitan areas, but a car wreck is a priority over a funeral procession any day.”