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Fire Services evolving tradition of the Pipes and Drums

The tradition of bagpipes played at fire department and police department funerals and other events started in the United States and dates back to the mid 1850s. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country, they brought many of their traditions with them.  One of these was the Great Highland Bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and ceilis (dances). As settlements spread across north america, so did fire departments along with them the tradition of the pipes and drums. 

It wasn't until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the bagpipes really took hold in the fire department.  In the 1800's, Irish immigrants faced massive discrimination.  Factories and shops had signs reading "NINA" - No Irish Need Apply.  The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted - jobs that were dirty, dangerous, or both - firefighters and police officers.  It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire.  The Irish firefighters' funerals were typical of all Irish funerals - the pipes were played.  It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of bagpipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade. 

Those who have attended a funeral where bagpipes were played know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be.  The most famous song played at fire and police funerals is Amazing Grace.  It wasn't too long before families and friends of non-celtic firefighters began asking for the bagpipes to be played for fallen heroes.  The bagpipes add a special air and dignity to this solemn occasion. 

Bagpipe bands represent both fire and police and often have more than 60 uniformed playing members.  They are also traditionally known as Emerald Societies after Ireland - the Emerald Isle.  Many bands wear traditional Highland Scottish dress while others wear the simpler Irish uniform.  All members wear the kilt and tunic, whether it is a Scottish clan tartan or Irish single color kilt. 

Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The bagpipes have become a distinguishing feature of a fallen hero's funeral. 

One of the most common tunes played after a Last Alarm service for a firefighter is Amazing Grace. Several symbolism's and meanings in regards to this tune are mentioned below. 

Amazing Grace

When you hear the Edmonton Firefighters Pipes & Drums play Amazing Grace at a funeral, you will notice that it is usually played four times.  There is meaning behind each stanza.

The first stanza is played for you being born, coming into the world alone.

This stanza is played by a solo piper.

The second is played for the celebration of you and your family.

This stanza is played with all of the pipers & drummers.

The third stanza is played for your entire life with your family, friends, and your Fire Department and first responder family. This stanza is played by all pipers & drummers as well.

(Pending family request, the 2nd and third stanza can be combined and played as one. )

Last and 4th stanza is for your death, leaving this world by yourself.

This stanza is played again, by a solo piper.

If requested, with this last stanza the solo piper turns around and walks away, while remaining in sight of the family. This creates a fading effect that is quite moving. Traditionally, bagpipes are thought to possess mystical powers. Supposedly they are the only instrument that can be heard in Heaven. A piper and the sound of the bagpipes helps to direct departed souls towards Heaven's Gates.

The walking away symbolizes the piper leading the departed to the Hereafter, yet stopping short of the Gate through which the piper cannot pass.

Amazing Grace can also be played by a Fire Dept solo piper with the same meanings and symbolism. If the full band or mini band is not required or requested. 

If you wish to explore the lyrics of Amazing Grace, there are several versions available online.