Funeral processions spur concerns about safety, liability

Bob Herrington of Watson Funeral Home speaks to Millsboro town council about safety and liability concerns associated with funeral processions.

MILLSBORO – Step-wise, what’s next is somewhat uncertain.

What is certain, area funeral home representatives shared in an Aug. 6 presentation to Millsboro town council, is that there’s serious safety concerns accompanying funeral processions.

“Growth, it’s wonderful. It makes our town a better town. But it also is scary at the same time,” said Bob Herrington of the Watson Funeral Home.  “We have had many fatal funeral procession accidents across the country. We have had fatal accidents in Maryland, right nearby. We have had an accident in Dover where I believe that policeman is never going to work again; a motorcycle officer assisting a funeral procession.”

“I don’t know what the exact answer, but I do think that if you try to prop up an ancient tradition and end up getting somebody maimed or killed it is not necessarily smart,” said Mr. Herrington.

Millsboro, noted for its traffic congestion issues, can pose a major challenge.

“I’ve gone through many funeral processions with the traffic the way it is and each time getting out is – hairy,” said Rev. James Van Der Wall of Grace United Methodist Church in Millsboro. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it is a bad thing when there is a lot of these grieving people and you try to get onto State Street. It’s not good.”

“As a funeral director, do you have to have a funeral procession?” asked Millsboro Mayor John Thoroughgood. “Can you get the people to meet at the cemetery?”

Mr. Herrington said he has posed that question to families. “More and more families are picking to meet at the cemetery,” Mr. Herrington said. “However, I have families that are, ‘Oh, no, grandma has got to have a procession.’ Well, then it creates a conundrum … because I don’t really have the authority to say ‘Oh, no we are not doing that.’”

Millsboro Police Chief Brian Calloway helped facilitate the presentation at the request of Mr. Herrington.

“A lot of his concerns are mainly … ‘What’s safe? What’s our involvement in this safe aspect?’” said Chief Calloway. “Funeral processions, when I first started, Mr. Watson, he would call us up and we would render aid for traffic to get processions out of town. Typically, we did not follow that procession if it went outside of our limits. But one of the things that we would often do is at least get them on (State Route) 24 and get them through the highway. Through the years Bob Herrington would call me in and say, ‘Hey Brian, if you have someone available can you at least get us out onto Washington Street?’ and we’ve been able to do that,” said Chief Calloway. “As the years progressed as we all know traffic is a major concern, but people still have the need for the funeral procession – the need and the want as well. With that being said, as traffic also has gained so has our complaint load and our need for emergency response.”

“Again, what we have done through the years is just what we used to do 20 years ago. But traffic looked different then. It was easier for one person actually; I could get them out and still run to the highway to get the light, too. But those days are over,” said Chief Calloway.

Noting efforts to have a more definitive funeral procession law established through the state legislature have thus far been unsuccessful, Mr. Herrington offered a local pitch.

“But if under the safety of the town government and the police department there were guidelines …,” Mr. Herrington said. “The state of Delaware, since 1998 we have tried to get a funeral procession law and it never ever gets anywhere. So, we can’t worry about the rest of the state. We live here. This is our place and we need our place to be safe.”

According to Delaware Code Title 21, Chapter 71 spells out that funeral processions shall be subject to the following conditions and exceptions:

* Operators of vehicles in a funeral procession shall yield the right-of-way to an approaching emergency vehicle giving an audible and/or visual signal;

* Operators of vehicles in a funeral procession shall yield the right-of-way when directed to do so by a police officer;

* Operators in a funeral procession must exercise due care when participating in a funeral procession.

“It doesn’t say if you can go through an intersection or if you can’t go through an intersection. It doesn’t say whether we can go out with a ‘Stop Sign’ in the street,” said Mr. Herrington.

Mayor Thoroughgood asked what funeral directors want from the town and council.

“I would like to see the municipality of Millsboro establish guidelines,” Mr. Herrington said. “I don’t want to put the police department in a liability situation where the town gets sued because they were involved in a funeral procession accident. I have worked hard to build my business. I don’t want to lose it by being sued because we are in an accident with a procession.”

“I think probably the most important thing is if you could reach out as a town to these local politicians and help us encourage them to pass some type of legislation where we can do funeral processions legally and maybe even have parameters into it; when it can be done, how it can be done and things of that nature,” said Brian Bishop of Bishop-Hastings Funeral Home in Selbyville. “I think that would probably be one of the most important things, if we could get that done.”

“Our utmost goal is to keep those folks that are participating in a funeral procession and the community that we are serving safe,” said Doug Brown of the Melson Funeral Service. “Is the answer for us to have an escort, whether we hire it out from the state police or local municipality, I don’t know?”

“But it is an issue, especially for us,” Mr. Brown continued. “We are coming from the Frankford area and Ocean View area and we do come through the town of Millsboro on the highway. We do a lot of burials at the Veterans Cemetery. The development that has happened on (US) 113 with the addition of lights it does become concern. Our first lead car may go through along with our hearse, but if we have 40 cars behind that, what is the legality? Can they continue through that intersection? If they do continue through that intersection and God forbid something were to happen, who is liable? Is that the town? Is that the funeral home? It is just something for the town to think about, and kind of converse and maybe help us.”

“Some people say we just should quit altogether. Other people say we should only have a police escort,” said Mr. Herrington. “When I went to mortuary school, it was in Dallas, Texas, and it was a municipal law you could not have a funeral procession in Dallas unless the family hired at least two off-duty Dallas police officers at the expense of the family so that it didn’t cost the city anything to escort the procession, or you could not have a procession. Sometimes I thought that might be a good way to start.”

“But again, like Brian said, maybe if the council could appeal to the state legislature, to our local senator and representative,” said Mr. Herrington. “Somebody is going to get maimed or killed before this is over with. I can tell you there was a fatal funeral procession accident right along highway 113 going down towards Pocomoke. That was only four years or five years ago. There was a fatal accident on I-97 right outside of BWI where a mother and a baby were killed. We don’t need to have anything like that. We are all going to regret it if we just keep kicking the can down the road and then suddenly it’s in the news that Watson’s or Melson’s or Hastings or Short’s was in a fatal accident …”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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