Speeding Past the Graveyard

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In The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel noted that respect for the dead was diminishing in secular Europe. For example, during the heat wave of 2003, which caused many members of the elderly to collapse and die, the French couldn't be bothered to bury them, he wrote.

"Why did so many of the French prefer to continue their summer vacations during the European heat wave of 2003, leaving their parents unburied and warehoused in refrigerated lockers (which were soon overflowing)?" In Germany, Weigel continued, death is "increasingly anonymous, with no death notice in the newspapers, no church funeral ceremony, no secular memorial service."

In a materialist society, indifferent to the past, fixated on the present, and unsure of any future, reminders of mortality are seen as an annoyance. How the dead are treated is perhaps becoming a new measure of a society's irreligion, and by that standard, America is evidently catching up with secular Europe. According to The Washington Post, many drivers around the nation's capital no longer even stop for funeral processions. "People do not give respect to the funeral as they did years back," said one funeral driver to the paper. "[Everyone] seems in a hurry to get nowhere."

The subtext of the story is that this rudeness is yet another indice of religious America's disappearance. In the Bible Belt, the story suggests, funeral processions still command respect, but less so in the more secularized north, where drivers will honk at funeral processions and even cut into them.

Ironically, for some of these drivers, the poet Emily Dickinson's line -- "because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me" -- is coming true: according to the American Automobile Association, funeral procession accidents have spiked. So far this year there have been two deaths and twenty three accidents. "This caliber of macabre disrespect was unthinkable a generation ago," John Townsend of AAA told the Post.

Archer Harmon, a funeral driver, recalled to the paper that when he started his career a quarter century ago people would pull to the side of the road. Now people honk at him and dart into his processions: "We have cellphones in one hand, Starbucks in the other and what is in front of you doesn't matter at this point. They just don't care, in this society we live in now."

Another funeral driver recounted how his bumper got clipped by an impatient driver, and that incident wasn't even on the highway but at the gates of the cemetery. Such grimly comic episodes surpass the satirical imagination of Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge saw all this coming. When he visited America in the 20th century, he noticed the "extraordinary efforts made, linguistically and in every other way, to keep death out of sight and mind." He spent a month in Florida at Sunshine Haven, a retirement home where the residents were expected to behave like teenagers, "perfectly capable of disporting ourselves on the dance floor, the beach, or even in bed."

A "geriatric joie de vivre" was kept up at all times despite "creaking joints and inward groans," producing a scene of "withered bodies arrayed in dazzling summer wear, hollow eyes glaring out of garish caps, skulls plastered with cosmetics, lean shanks tanned a rich brown, bony buttocks encased in scarlet trousers." But of all the amenities available at Sunshine Haven, he wrote, "the one never spoken of or advertised in any way is the crematorium, discreetly hidden away among trees and bushes, and unmentioned in the illustrated brochures."

Muggeridge concluded that in America death was becoming the "dirty little secret that sex once was," and that its increasingly godless mindset would make the spread of that attitude inevitable: "If Man is the very apex of creation, with nothing greater than himself in the universe; if his earthly life exhausts the whole content of his existence, then, clearly, his definitive end, his death, is too outrageous to be contemplated, and so is better ignored."

The Post's story on Americans who honk at funeral processions wouldn't have surprised Muggeridge. It is what he would have expected from a society of increasingly self-absorbed secularists.

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