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Staff Editorials

The sanctity (and manners) of a southern funeral procession

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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There are a million things I love about living in a rural southern town – boiled peanuts, cows for neighbors, waving hi to strangers, (did I mention boiled peanuts) – but not long ago I was reminded of a poignant tradition that speaks to the heart of being a small-town southerner. It’s one I hope we keep alive. 

The Progress office is on Main Street. I lucked up and got a window seat in the editorial room, which means when I’m stuck and need some inspiration I can look outside. On this particular day, it was hard to miss the funeral procession creeping south towards the traffic light – this one had an unusual number of law enforcement vehicles with their flashing reds and blues. I decided to walk outside.  

Not only had motorists pulled off on the side of the road to show their respects, people who had been walking on the street stood still and men took their caps off. There was a brief moment of silence. Georgia code states that funeral processions have the right of way at intersections, and that all other drivers should yield and let them pass, but that’s not what’s happening in scenarios like this one. What I witnessed then, and on many other occasions, is a southern tradition of showing courtesy and respect to the deceased and their families - and I love it. 

Interestingly, a NY Times article “Almost Moribund Itself, a Courtesy Pause for Death,” says the practice had roots in practicality, not manners, but evolved into the respectful display it is today.     

“Back when doctors still hurried to house calls,” the article states, “motorists approaching a funeral procession pulled over so the doctors could pass at will in the free lane of the two-lane roads. But even when house calls faded into history, people still did it, because it was right.”

The article goes on to quote Bill Ferris, Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, who aligns the tradition with a southern culture of sanctity for the dead. 

''Every Southerner has a healthy respect for death,'' said Ferris. ''You see that in Huck Finn when they are seeking his body in the river. All the superstitions in Twain's fiction are a part of the Southern mind. The procession of the dead, being carried to their burial spot, is a very sacred moment in every Southerner's life.''

Of course, this rich custom doesn’t translate as well in busier areas like metro Atlanta proper, and some people argue that it’s dangerous to pull over. A funeral law blogger asks the following: 

“Does this practice make sense in today’s society? Should we accord a funeral procession the same respect as an ambulance rushing an individual with a life-threatening emergency to the hospital? A 2012 article in the Washington Post noted that two people died, and 23 were injured in funeral processions that year. In 2011, three police officers were killed in separate funeral processions. Should we continue this tradition given the potential danger, expense, and disruption to traffic patterns?”

  The easy answer to these questions is common sense. Pulling over on Church Street or Highway 53 is a much different animal than pulling over on Barret Parkway or Highway 41, where life – and traffic – move much faster. While a funeral director interviewed for the article says this tradition, “born in a time of dirt roads and full-service gasoline stations, of Packards, Kaisers and Studebakers,” is becoming obsolete in these busier areas, “it survives…in the little towns, and in a few inner-city neighborhoods.”

Good for us, we live in a little town where we can keep this beautiful tradition of honoring the dead alive.

 

Make America Happy Again

We Americans are an unhappy people – at least in relation to the greatness, affluence and freedom of this country.

Based on the recently released World Happiness Report for 2018, America ranks 18th in our citizen contentment, out of 159 countries. Not  horrible; we broke the top 20 in the rankings compiled for United Nations using Gallup poll data and other factors developed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. But at least one compiler of the report remarked how surprising it is that a free democracy like America with such a high standard of living isn’t in the top 10. In fact, we’ve not been in the top 10 since the Happiness scale was first published in 2012.

There is disappointment that U.S. citizens aren’t happier. It would be like finding out  Alabama Crimson Tide fans are only fake cheering during football season.

If the results are to be believed, the Nordic countries must be doing something right as the number one happiest place this year was Finland. In the past few years it was Denmark, Switzerland and Norway at the top spot. Who’d have thought countries that are so cold are so happy? 

The happiest nations, a virtual list of Nordic nations plus a few friends (Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Australia), may change positions but no country has joined or been knocked out of the top 10 in the past three years.

In the rankings, the U.S. comes right behind Luxembourg and ahead of the UK. We barely beat the United Arab Emirates, France and Mexico.

We significantly beat Russia at their 59th spot and we creamed Bhutan, a country that strives for happiness, but only ranks 97th. China was 86th, but as their economy surges, they have found that money does lead to improvement in happiness rankings over previous years.

No surprise that the poverty and violence filled nations in Africa (Burundi, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania) are at the bottom. 

Income levels, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels are cited as the keys to a happy nation by compilers of the report.

In the polls, respondents around the globe are asked to imagine a ladder and out of 10 steps are you fist-pumping the sweet life at the top or scared, hungry and crying in the cellar?

The U.S. respondents for the past several years have been somewhere between the 6th and 7th step. In the latest rankings (2015-2017) we were on step 6.88 with Finland on step 7.63 at the top and Burundi only climbing up 2.9 steps.

Impediments to American happiness include obesity/health issues, the opioid crisis and widespread depression, according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, who supplied supplemental information.

In an interview, Sachs told the New York Times that even though incomes as a whole are rising, the results indicate the average American is under more stress than people in the happier nations.

One observation we’d add: Perhaps Americans don’t consider themselves happy because we are jaded by all that we do have. Look around, there is relative safety, the opportunity to succeed in many different fields and a very comfortable way of life for most. You can imagine if some poor fellow from Burundi were to be relocated here with any average job, they might tell pollsters they were on step 11 of the 10 step criteria. A Jasper resident from a poorer nation once told us in an interview he considers his convenience store “paradise.”

Our dissatisfaction may also come from the celebrity-worshiping cult in America. Even the most grounded middle-class life looks dull compared to the constant images of beautiful people doing exciting things filling television and social media.

As the aforementioned Ms. Sachs noted, America’s problems are not economic ones, they are social ones.

A woman’s place is in the research lab

The Oscar-nominated documentary Jane on the revolutionary work of primatologist Jane Goodall was shown on the National Geographic channel Monday night. The piece, directed by Brett Morgen, took more than 100 hours of previously lost footage and put together an amazing work showing us Goodall’s early years studying chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Not only did Goodall, now 83, change the world’s thinking about chimpanzees, she also led the way for women researchers in all fields.

While the documentary is filled with footage from her work with the chimpanzees, it also features scores of newspaper headlines from the 1960s when she first went to Tanzania. And for those of us looking at them from a 2018 perspective, it was rather shocking. Shocking, but not surprising. “Comely Miss Studying Chimps” was just one of the seemingly exhaustive list of typical newspaper headlines that ran at the time about Goodall’s work. They were often peppered with subtle, other times not-so-subtle, quips at her work because she was a  young woman.

At the time, in the 1960s, it was almost unthinkable for a young female to do that job, but Goodall never considered that an obstacle. “I wasn’t brought up that way. Everybody else laughed at me, but Mom didn’t. Women weren’t scientists. When I was growing up, you could be a nurse, a missionary’s wife, a secretary, and then, oh how exciting, you could be an air hostess. A lot of people said to me, don’t you want to be an air hostess?”

Goodall said in the documentary that as a child she dreamed as a man because “in her world women didn’t do the things she wanted to do, like go on adventures in Africa and live among the animals.” The documentary, while showing the wonderfully complex and tight-knit community of apes, also shows us how important strong parental bonds are, especially those of a mother. It was Goodall’s mother, Vanne, who is credited  as giving her the confidence to ignore the rampant sexism of the time. Unlike practically everyone else, her mother didn’t  discourage her from going into science.

And the world should be thankful.

The secretary turned nationally-renowned scientist has gone on to make tremendous contributions to our world, including founding Roots and Shoots, a youth service program that empowers and encourages youth of all ages to pursue their passion, mobilize their peers, and become the leaders our world needs to ensure a better future for people, animals and the environment. Not the least of her contributions is being a female leader in science.

Women now comprise more than 40 percent of researchers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the EU, France, Portugal, the UK, and the US. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of women varies widely across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) job types. Women are underrepresented in some STEM job clusters, but in others they match or exceed their share in the U.S. workforce overall. In fact, women comprise three-quarters of health care practitioners and technicians, the largest occupational cluster classified as STEM in this analysis, with 9 million workers – 6.7 million of whom are women, according to Pew. And women’s gains since 1990 in the life sciences (up from 34% to 47%) have brought them roughly on par with their share in the total workforce (47%), a milestone reached in math occupations (46%) as well. Women remain underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer (25%) and physical science (39%) occupations, according to Pew statistics.

Along with other female scientists like Virginia Apgar (a pioneering anesthesiologist) and Dr. Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize winner for her genetics research), Goodall helped pave the way for women in the sciences. 

This is one trend that needs continuing. At last week’s STAR banquet, this year’s valedictorian and STAR student (the PHS senior who scored the highest SAT score), Hannah Ballard, said she plans to become a biomedical engineer. 

Kudos to commissioners for bold move

The Pickens County Board of Commissioners, and especially commissioner Becky Denney who led the charge, deserves a pat on the back for making a definitive move to clear up the public debacle that has been the “termination” of Gerry Nechvatal as Pickens County Economic Development Director. 

We put termination in quotation marks because it has been unclear as to whether or not his dismissal was legal - and what ensued after he was “dismissed” was an embarrassing public spectacle that went on for nearly two months. 

If you haven’t been following along we’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: Nechvatal was dismissed by the Pickens County and Jasper Economic Development Council (EDC) in late January, but Nechvatal, members of the Pickens County Chamber of Commerce (Nechvatal was appointed by the same council to serve as Pickens County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director in 2016 and has served in both positions since) as well as members of the public say the EDC’s bylaws did not grant them that authority. It was argued that the EDC only had authority to make a recommendation for termination to the entities that fund the economic director position - the city of Jasper and Pickens County government. 

EDC representatives have maintained that they were within their rights to dismiss Nechvatal, who one EDC member said had a “pitiful” review and who Jasper Mayor John Weaver said was “impossible to fire.” Nechvatal maintained that he was not hired by the EDC, but that a citizens’ group hired him before EDC bylaws were created. There are also issues with the changes made to the EDC bylaws in 2016 which Nechvatal and others say invalidate the termination.  

And so it has gone, back and forth for well over a month with no resolution in sight. At the most recent Jasper City Council meeting council member Tony Fountain motioned to stop funding the position completely, which was not backed by the rest of council. 

We think the county cleared the issue up in the best and most common-sense way possible – Denney asked that the county continue funding the position, but requested it be put in escrow until a new person can be hired as economic development director. She said she felt the position was needed, but that it is full-time and should not be held by the same person employed as the Chamber’s executive director, also a full-time job. Several members of the EDC who initially supported the joint developer/chamber director role, said with the termination, they no longer had that view, believing the positions should be separate.

We agree wholeheartedly. We also agree with Nechvatal supporters who say his dismissal has been politicized and handled distastefully.   

Like Denney and other commissioners, we hope that by separating those two roles, an economic development director will be found to move the county forward in a way residents and leaders want to see.    

 

Spring potpourri

• It was disheartening to see the Save-A-Lot shutter its doors in Jasper over the weekend. Any way you slice it, the closure bodes poorly for the south end of town. While businesses come and go, there has been a sour trend for smaller grocers here with the Blue Star, followed by the Piggly Wiggly and now the Save-A-Lot closing. Perhaps they just couldn’t compete with the more modern, larger chain rivals like Ingles, Kroger and Walmart grocery stores?

It does seem south Jasper has been bypassed ever since a fire forced the relocation of the Dairy Queen -- could have been a bad omen that no one saw.

A huge spark for the business atmosphere there may be on the horizon as reporting indicates that the VA clinic is truly coming – albeit slowly. Here’s hoping the VA not only serves a great number of veterans by providing solid  healthcare close to home, but it also gives a boost the businesses surrounding its location.

• On the gun debate the first question that everyone needs to ask: Is the status quo acceptable? Not only with the highly-publicized, though still relatively rare school shootings - but for routine gun violence: robberies, domestic assaults, suicides -  are we satisfied with where the nation is now? If the public believes something must be done, then let’s look at it from every angle – mental health, gun laws, privacy laws and civil liberties. If we can put a man on the moon and fight terrorists around the globe, our nation can come up with something to keep kids safe in school and people of all ages safe at concerts and in the streets.

 

• The first sign of spring are blooming March flowers; the second sign are events popping up almost as fast. Lots of events, all kinds of events – eating events, exercising events, fundraisers, school events, church events, events to promote this and support that all vying for a small population. The main rush of events don’t really hit until April and May.

We would ask two things for the planners and public. First, don’t swamp the small portion of the people that actually get out and do things by loading up several events on the same weekend. If you know a Kids Fishing Day is already announced, your group doesn’t need to have a petting zoo, bounce house day at the same time. Please keep your eyes out on what the other groups here are doing.

Second, to the fickle public, go support some of these groups. It is tough to tear yourself away from finishing that hedge-trimming or heading to the lake, but keep in mind that these groups are holding fundraisers for a reason. Attending these events is the very essence of community and what it means to live in a small town. We don’t expect people to give up all their weekends, but surely we can get to some of the events.

• The Georgia counties of Sumter, Oconee, Candler, Crisp, County, and Jeff Davis along with Athens-Clarke combined and the Candler County Hospital Authority have all filed suit against the companies that make and distribute opioids.

The Cherokee Nation has filed a similar suit on the tribal level, along with more than 400 plaintiffs at the federal level, seeking to make drug companies and distributors pay for the costs of the opioid crisis.

The lead attorney in the Georgia counties’ suits, Patrick Garrard, said the counties are trying to recoup expenses that were caused by unethical selling of opioids by more than 20 companies.

The suit alleges the companies misrepresented the addictive nature of opioids, encouraged over-prescription while ignoring the growing number of pills given to some patients when any reasonable person would have known something was not right. 

We  encourage Pickens County to join that list. These companies made millions on the sale of opioids. It’s fair to expect these medical robber-barons to pay for the some of the financial costs they inflicted on society – though there will be no recovery of the thousands of destroyed and derailed lives. 

 

  • Finally to end on a high note, in case you didn’t notice the weather last weekend was textbook perfect. Cool enough to work outside in shorts but not get sweaty. We don’t get many weekends like that so enjoy them when you can.