The uniformed soldier stood tall and proud in the rain beside his private vehicle, rigid right hand held steadily to his U.S. Army BDU patrol cap in order to maintain the salute as a funeral procession passed on the wet highway.
Someone snapped a blurry photo of him through a windshield and posted the dramatic image on Facebook and Instagram. It went viral. But initially the identity of the soldier was a mystery.
The soldier who stood alone in the rain, paying his respects to the deceased and the grieving family, was Col. Jack Usrey, senior Army advisor to the Adjutant General of the Tennessee National Guard. He boasts a distinguished military career, having served both here and overseas for more than 29 years.
Col. Usery was somewhat stunned by all the attention generated by his simple act of respect.
“I really didn’t think about it,” he said. “I just did what my parents taught me to do growing up.”
Much has been published and broadcasted about the rainy-day salute. The image led to discussion, online and otherwise, of state laws and protocols pertaining to funeral processions.
But typical of any debate in chat rooms, on blogs or bulletin boards – or at local coffee tables -- misinformation abounds regarding exactly how funeral processions are governed by traffic laws and the responsibility of other drivers to show courtesy and respect.
I have lived in northern, middle and southern Appalachia, been a driver in funeral processions, and encountered lines of mourner vehicles following a hearse with official escort. I can attest to the confusion that motorists share when it comes to how the rules of the road apply and what they should do.
Recently, I served as a pallbearer at the funeral of an uncle in North Alabama. As we left for the cemetery, in a row of bumper-to-bumper vehicles following the hearse and a city police unit, the only thing I knew with any certainty was to switch on my headlights and emergency flashers.
No instructions were given about whether oncoming traffic yields the right of way at intersections, nor whether we could legally disregard stop signs and signal lights as the procession snaked through town. In fact, I later learned that Alabama has no state laws governing funeral processions. Municipalities might have their own ordinances, but how is one to know if you’re from out-of-town?
Alabama does have a long-standing tradition of respect that compels motorists approaching the head of a funeral procession to pull off the road, partially or entirely, to let the mourners pass before proceeding. Not many motorists observed this tradition in the city limits, but when a sheriff’s patrol car picked up the procession in the county, almost every driver pulled over to let the funeral line pass.
Some people took off their hats and bent their heads in silent respect.
Throughout Appalachia and the South, laws that apply to funeral processions (if any exist) are a hodge-podge. Some acknowledge that properly escorted processions have the right of way in intersections; others allow funeral vehicles to disregard control signals. Some states require headlights to be turned on; others don’t address this.
Nowhere could I find in my research a legal statute requiring oncoming drivers to show their respect to funeral processions by pulling over, although several states prohibit motorists from passing cars in a funeral procession.
Texas has no state laws applying to funeral processions, but Texas courts “recognize the tradition of vehicles stopping to allow the funeral procession to pass through an intersection.” What? Courts don’t pass laws, so how could this be a legal interpretation on which personal injury vehicle lawsuits would be decided? I guess it works because people think it is the law and observe it.
Alabama, Mississippi and Texas do not have funeral procession laws. Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina have statutes, but all are different. If not having uniform traffic rules bothers you as a driver, the best advice when approaching a funeral procession in another state is watch to see what the local drivers do. But use care; they might be confused, too.
Funeral home officials usually explain to the immediate family and pallbearers what they should do at signal lights and stop signs, but sometimes that advice does not filter down to old Aunt Sally in her 1972 Cadillac, bringing up the rear or late arrivals.
Finally, how to show your respect – and I hope it matters to you, like it did to Col. Usery – is an individual decision. But always default to state traffic laws or municipal ordinances, which are based on public safety. Don’t put yourself, your passengers or others at risk.
I like to believe that in southern Appalachia the sense of family and community runs deep enough to prompt a gesture of respect from motorists passing a funeral procession in the opposite lane of traffic. Turn off the booming bass speakers, pull onto the road shoulder, take off your cap or hat, and nod at the family when their car rolls past – these are gestures they’d appreciate.
Remember Col. Usery’s example, but do it safely.