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Local funeral homes weigh in on discontinuing processions

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Aug 4, 2017 at 11:58 PM

Most local funeral homes seem to understand Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois’ recent recommendation to end police escorts for funeral processions.

Citing safety concerns, the chief asked the Johnson City Commission on Monday to end the longstanding tradition.

“Police escorts should be discontinued due to safety and liability concerns, with some exceptions similar to other cities,” Sirois told city leaders.

Though there has been some public backlash against the recommendation, Woodall-Anderson and Dugger Funeral Home Director Al Dugger said people will most likely adapt to the changes with time.

“I think it’ll work, but we’ll probably have some negative feedback as well,” he said. “The larger cities have all discontinued that (police escorts). And Johnson City has grown so much, so that’s probably part of it. Some traditions change, and I know that’ll be a hard one to accept.”

On Friday, the Johnson City Press requested an interview with Sirois, but he was unavailable for further comments.

The safety concerns cited by Sirois are also a matter of concern to many at the local funeral homes, according to John Birchette, director of Birchette Mortuary. He said he has witnessed firsthand how funeral processions can become dangerous traffic hazards.

“As a tradition, I hate to see it go away, but I see the risks involved,” Birchette said. “We were one of the funeral homes where one of these accidents were involved.

“About three years ago, a lady cut in front of the officer on the motorcycle. Luckily, he wasn’t seriously hurt. It could’ve been a lot worse than it was, but after witnessing that, it certainly opened my eyes.”

Still, Birchette said he can understand how abandoning the tradition could be difficult for some families to accept.

“I’m third-generation in this business, and from the tradition standpoint, it does hurt to see it go away,” he said. “I understand it from a family’s point of view. It’s symbolic — like a last pay of respects to these people.”

Travis Dugger from Appalachian Funeral Home said the tradition began partly because of the fact that some cemeteries in rural areas didn’t have addresses. The processions served as a way for everybody to be able to find the location of the services.

“I hate to see it go. It’ll be hard to tell the families we can’t do it anymore,” he said. “A lot of rural cemeteries in the mountains don’t have addresses, so that’s one of the reasons for the procession tradition.”

Dugger expects some public outcry against the recent decision, though. He recalled when Elizabethton discontinued its processions in the late ’90s, only to bring back the tradition a month later after complaints from many residents.

Still, many funeral home directors believe this is the right move.

Preston McKee, director of Morris-Baker Funeral Home, recalled a few close calls he’s witnessed during processions. One in particular stood out.

“One time, I was going to Happy Valley Memorial Park, and I was driving a limousine in the procession. As we were driving up a hill, a car was coming the opposite direction and realized this was a procession. Out of respect, they stopped, and another car rear-ended them,” McKee said. 

He said it was a significant collision, which caused him to call 911. He said the woman in the car that was hit was pregnant. Luckily, she was fine, but McKee said it’s instances like these that contribute to the consensus among funeral home operators.

“Think about how bad that could’ve been,” he said. 

During Monday’s presentation at the City Commission meeting, Sirois showed a dash-cam video of a funeral escort his department provided that indirectly caused a wreck along Market Street when some cars stopped and others did not, much like the collision McKee recalled witnessing. 

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