Wednesday, June 09, 2004

State funerals in the modern age


Today, I braved the crowds and headed down to 15th and Constitution to see the funeral procession for Ronald Reagan. It was blazing hot, in the upper 90s, and very crowded.

The military troops marched out in full dress uniform and came to a stop. For over half an hour, they stood there, fully clothed, waiting for the casket to approach so they could start marching. Well, the heat started getting to them, and one by one they begin passing out. The military medics were taking them out of their formations, pulling them aside, giving them water and making them rest. Eventually, it became a sort of a game with the crowd to see who was going to drop next. In fact, several people called over some of the medics and pointed to this gray and shaking soldier in one of the units and told the medics that maybe they should go to him, since he was about to drop. After helping him, the medics said 'good call' and went on. It was fairly amusing, although I think everyone felt really bad for those poor uniformed folk, since even in shorts and t-shirts and in partial shade, we were sweating up a storm.

Meanwhile, one shrill female police officer kept screaming (and I mean screaming) at people behind us to get down from where they were standing on the huge concrete flower pots. Her screams became more frantic with time. I sort of wanted to go stand on a flower pot, just so that I could be arrested and later, at job interviews, tell people when asked if I have criminal record that yes, I was arrested, for standing on a flower pot at Reagan's funeral procession.

Also amusing was the widespread use of cell phones. Sine we had no indication of when the casket was going to come through, various people called their friends and relatives at home who were watching TV, asking them where Reagan's body was now. This kept us fairly informed.

I don't think anyone around me actually saw the casket pass with their own eyes. We were all too busy snapping pictures with our snazzy digital cameras, held at arms length.

And while I stood there, I realized how profoundly the nature of mass public events has changed with the advent of modern technology. No longer are pictures limited to a roll of film - people snap away continuously, ignoring everything around them. No longer is there the suspense of not knowing what will happen next - cell phones keep us connected to other forms of media and let us know exactly what will happen when. No longer do people turn out to events like state funerals to mourn - the constant barrage of media images has taught us that whatever we believe in, we want to be at events that may be of consequence, even if only of insignificant historical consequence.

I thought it was pretty exciting, although the atmosphere was more reminiscent of millenium London than of a funeral procession, albeit with much less alcohol. I don't know if that's what the cowboy would have wanted, but that's what he got.


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