Firefighter Funerals: Traditions, Etiquette & What to Expect

End-of-life care educator and grief worker

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Firefighters are often the unsung heroes in our community. While the city sleeps, they are on-call and ready when a fire strikes. They sacrifice a lot to do this job, risking their lives every day.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 64 on line-of-duty deaths in 2018. This number fluctuates each year and is increasing with the rise in forest fires. 

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Whether it's a tragedy that strikes or a minor fire, they are usually the first to arrive on a scene. With dignity and grace, these men and women serve in a capacity that many can't even imagine. When we lose a firefighter to death, we should show them the honor and respect they deserve.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like the last call, songs, and prayers, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.

How to Qualify for a Fire Department Funeral

When we lose a firefighter, it is a loss to our entire community. There are special circumstances in place to honor a service depending on the cause of death. In some cases, a service member may qualify for a fire department funeral. The possibilities include the following:

  • Line-of-duty death: This can include a traumatic death as a result of their service or a gradual decline in health postfire.
  • Off-duty death: This can include any traumatic incident that occurs unrelated to work. It can also sometimes include a gradual decline in health due to a life-threatening event.
  • Retired or former member: This may include a previous firefighter and volunteer firefighters. This can include a gradual decline in health or sudden death.
  • Firefighter service worker: Anyone who has served in some capacity at the firehouse, be it a dispatcher or other job function. If the person suffers an incident or series of incidents, their services may be covered.
  • Immediate family members: This might apply if a tragedy or severe illness is the cause of death of a firefighter’s spouse or child.
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Fire Department Funeral Traditions

There are four different types of funeral classifications when working with a fire department. These classifications can serve as a guide for families when they may have to plan a funeral for a loved one who worked in a firehouse.

Types of service

Formal service

This service is common for firefighters who died while on-duty. It is the highest honor and includes personnel in full Class A uniforms and an optional color guard. Uniformed firefighters may serve as pallbearers and assist with readings during the service. The Fire Chief will likely be in attendance and give a small eulogy. There are also optional services for an honor guard, crossed ladders, bagpipes, and others. 

Semi-formal service

This service includes many of the options offered in the formal service. If a firefighter died off-duty, this type of service is usually selected. 

Informal service

This type of service has the same offerings as the formal and semi-formal service. It is a service for volunteer firefighters and the immediate family of a firefighter. 

Private service

This service is not publicized and it is only open to select family and service men and women. 

Typical order of service

The order of service is often selected by the family members, with assistance from a funeral director. With a firefighter funeral, families may see a lot of ceremonial options to choose from and look to the funeral director for guidance. The fire department will assign an administrator to communicate the guidelines and options. 

Last call

The last call, also known as a bell service, may feature bagpipes and a dispatch call. A firefighter responds to alarms on-duty and this ceremony is a reminder of their sacrifice. A dispatcher will often call on the radio for the deceased firefighter. After a few moments of silence, the dispatcher acknowledges that this is the last call.

The terms "called home" are often recited along with the dates of service and recognition. 

Songs, bagpipes, and hymns

Bagpipes are often played in funerals of most servicemen and women. This tradition started with the Irish in the early 1800s, and nowadays evoke a lot of emotions due to their connection to funerals and memorials. The bagpipe has a rich tone and when heard, you can assume the person is receiving high honors. The popular hymn "Amazing Grace" is often played during this type of service. Both secular and non-secular music is common as well. 

If the firefighter was religious, the family may opt to read one of the two firefighter prayers. There are several versions, but here is one that is often chosen:

Give Me Concern
A willingness to seek out those in need
Give Me Courage
The boldness of spirit to face and conquer fear,
share and endure the ordeal of others in need.
Give Me Strength
Strength of heart, to bear whatever burden
might be placed on me and strength of body to
deliver safely all those placed in my care
Give Me Wisdom to Lead
The Compassion to comfort, and the love to serve unselfishly wherever you take me
And please Lord, through if all, be at my side.

Flowers

It is important to alert the florist that this funeral is for a firefighter. They have experience creating tailored floral arrangements for this type of funerals. Some suggestions are a Maltese cross, a helmet, or a broken rung ladder. The fire department will usually provide a firetruck caisson to transport the flowers.

Uniforms for the deceased and former colleagues

It is the family's choice if they wish to have the deceased buried in uniform. If they decide to do this, the fire department will supply a new uniform for burial. This is not required and the family cab chose to decline this option.  

Firefighter Funeral Etiquette

A funeral service for a firefighter is a significant occasion. The fire department sets the tone for a reverent service. There are many ceremonial pieces to the service that take place. As civilians attending this service, it is important to show our sincere respect. Being able to witness this high honor is a unique experience.

Attire

If the service is being held in a church, all Class A covers and civilian hats should be removed upon entering. Servicemen and women are encouraged to wear their dress uniforms. All firefighters should wear their uniforms. Civilian men wear suits with a tie and women will wear dresses, skirts, or suits. 

Mood and behavior of guests

Much like a traditional funeral, guests should be sincere and attentive. The presence of a funeral crowd is often felt by the family and it plays a crucial role in the service. When a funeral is for a fallen firefighter, the mood tends to be a bit more somber depending on the manner of death. It's okay to show emotion and cry at a funeral service.

During the prayers and ceremonies, pay attention and bow your head if requested. 

Gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers

Sympathy cards, floral arrangements, and small gifts are all acceptable. If you were close to the deceased you may consider a small personalized firefighter gift. A donation to your local fire department in their honor is also a great way to keep their legacy alive. 

Firefighter Burials

It is up to the family of the deceased if the person will have a burial or cremation service. The family should check to see if the deceased left any documents stating what they wanted.

If a burial is taking place, active firefighters and an officer will serve as pallbearers. The casket will have a flag draped over it and went it leaves the church, all servicemen will salute the casket. A group of firefighters is known as the funeral detail. They will stand in ranks at the gravesite and wait for the casket to arrive. The funeral details issues a hand salute on order of the OIC, “Present Arms.” 

All service members will salute if Taps is sounded. They will bow during prayers and an officer will fold the flag from the casket and issue it to the family.

Continuing to Honor These Heroes 

A memorial fund or annual donation to your local fire department is a great way to honor your loved one. You could also start an annual golf tournament or community organized event. Consider donating these funds to your local first responders.

You can plant a memorial garden in a park or public place where people can spend time in quiet reflection. Dropping a meal or a thank you note at your local fire department is also a way to memorialize a loved one.

There are events around North America that honor fallen heroes every year. One event to look up is "Light The Night" and held by The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. This event encourages cities to turn their lights red as a reminder of the fallen. You can visit their website for more information if you wish to get involved. 


Sources

  1. Funeral Procedures for Firefighters, National Volunteer Fire Committee, www.nvfc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Funeral_Procedures_Guide.pdf
  2. How to ‘Light the Night’ for firefighters who died in the line of duty, FireRescue1, www.firerescue1.com/fallen-firefighters/articles/how-to-light-the-night-for-firefighters-who-died-in-the-line-of-duty-RNouFQamO5dtfdnB/

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