Firefighter funeral traditions show the deep gratitude and respect that the community holds for the selfless and brave contribution firefighters make to the protection and safety of society. When a firefighter dies, he is considered a "fallen hero," and his funeral will reflect his honorable career and life. Certain funeral aspects are retained only for firefighters, signifying what they have given, what they have lost, and how deeply they will be missed.
Who Receives a Firefighter Funeral?
If a firefighter passes away in the line of duty, it can be assumed that a firefighter memorial, with traditions, will be held in honor of that person. Others might also qualify for this unique and meaningful set of funeral traditions. They include:
- Firefighters who passed while off duty: This might include a tragic passing or a passing due to a decline in health
- Retired firefighter: Can include volunteer firefighters as well as occupational firefighters
- Firefighter service worker: Might include a person who worked closely with the fire department, for example, a dispatcher
- Immediate family member: In the case of severe illness or the tragic passing of a firefighter's spouse or child
Firefighter Funeral Traditions and Protocol
When a firefighter dies, the family is not left alone to plan the funeral. Most fire departments have advocates that assist the family with grief counseling and help make appropriate arrangements for the funeral. Some fire departments have specific protocols they wish to be followed when one of their own dies. Families can plan the funeral around their own religious beliefs while keeping in mind firefighter funeral traditions. The following questions may be asked of the family, so the advocate can plan the funeral in accordance with what the family wants:
- Does the family want the deceased firefighter buried with full department honors?
- Does the family want a church funeral, and where will it be?
- Who is their religious leader?
- What funeral home will they be using?
- Who does the family want as pallbearers?
- Will there be an open casket?
Aside from these common questions that help drive the direction of the firefighter funeral, families will need to choose from four types of funeral classifications.
- Formal service - Common service for those who fell in the line of duty. This high honor includes personnel in full Class A uniforms, optional color guards and bagpipes, uniformed firefighters serving as pallbearers, and the Fire Chief delivering the eulogy.
- Semi-Formal Service - This will include several of the elements of the formal service and is common for firefighters who died off duty.
- Informal Service - Includes many of the same offerings as a formal and semi-formal service. Normally reserved for volunteer firefighters or the immediate family of a firefighter.
- Private Service - Not publicized to the public. Only open to family and select service members.
Firefighter funerals are often attended by other firefighters and loved ones from all over the nation. A hotel should be chosen that can make accommodations for out-of-town guests. Oftentimes, reserving a block of rooms at a time will result in a discount for the guests who plan to attend the memorial. Work with local hotels to ensure guests are nearby one another (you may have to reserve rooms at a few hotels), and receive a lower rate during their stay.
The police department will be assisting with the firefighter's funeral procession. They often arrange a traffic route for the funeral procession, lead the procession, and provide traffic control when necessary.
One of the most recognized firefighter funeral traditions is pipers playing "Amazing Grace" or another religious song at the funeral on bagpipes. The tradition of having bagpipes at firefighters' funerals dates back to the 1800s when Irish and Scottish immigrants were usually forced to take the difficult and dangerous jobs, such as firefighting, that nobody else wanted. Those Irish and Scottish firefighters' funerals had the typical bagpipes playing, and the tradition has held since.
Helmet on the Altar
It is a typical funeral tradition to have the firefighter's helmet placed upon the casket or on the altar during the funeral service.
An honor guard gets selected from fellow firefighters or police officers. These individuals stand guard at the entrance to the funeral and are commonly dressed in their formal blues. The honor guard posts the colors during the service and act as pallbearers to carry the casket. At the end of the funeral service, the honor guard, along with as many police and firefighters as possible, may line up in two rows and allow the family to pass through the center as a show of respect.
The casket will be draped with the flag from the firehouse the firefighter served in during their career. At the end of the ceremony, the color guard will ceremoniously fold the flag and pass it to the next of kin to keep.
Tolling of the Bell and Last Call
During each firefighter funeral, there is the ceremony of the "Tolling of the Bell," where bells gong in a succinct and traditional pattern. The bell ceremony is reminiscent of the original firehouse bells that tolled when there was a fire. The actual ceremony is based upon the pattern of the original method of communicating that a firefighter had fallen, which is the telegraph. The telegrapher would tap out the word "fell" with five measured dashes, a pause, and then repeated this two more times.
With reference to last call, a dispatcher will call the deceased firefighter's name over the radio, signaling the last call for them. A few moments of silence follow the call. The term "call home" is recited along with the firefighter's name and date of passing.
Buried in Uniform
Fallen firefighters will commonly be buried in uniform. If the family wishes this, the fire department often supplies a new uniform for this purpose. It is important to note that being buried in uniform isn't mandatory and families sometimes choose to bury their loved ones in garments other than the firefighter uniform.
Flowers for a Firefighter Funeral
Flowers are typical adornments at many types of funerals, firefighter memorials included. If you choose to include flowers at your fallen firefighter's funeral, let your florist know of the deceased's high honor. Typically florists will include specific elements to the floral arrangements that signify this type of passing, including a Maltese cross, a helmet, the service member department logo/patch, a crossed pike pole, and ax, or a broken rung ladder. Beyond this, it is tradition to have a firetruck transport the flowers to the funeral space.
Fire Rig Leads the Funeral Procession
At every firefighter's funeral, you will see several fire rigs in attendance, paying respect. It is a common tradition that the deceased's own fire rig will lead the funeral procession to the cemetery.
Firefighter Funerals Honor the Fallen Heros
It is a sad occasion when a firefighter passes away in the line of duty or otherwise. Firefighter funeral traditions help all show proper respect and gratitude to a person who dedicated their living to serving and protecting others. It is a way to give back to someone who gave their life for others and remember them in the highest esteem.