Why Bagpipes Are Played at Funerals

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Commemoration At Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery
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In the United States, bagpipes are often played at the funerals of police officers, firefighters, soldiers, and other state workers. The instrument has a particularly mournful sound that makes it perfect for "Amazing Grace" and other hymns—but that's not the only reason it's used.

Celtic Traditions

The history of funeral bagpipes is a fairly simple (though very sad) one. In traditional Celtic cultures, including Irish and Scottish cultures, bagpipes were an important part of traditional weddings, funerals, and celebrations. After the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1840s, Irish immigrants came to the United States in huge numbers. They were not treated very warmly, though. Because of racism and xenophobia, many Irish people were not allowed to apply for certain jobs. Anti-Irish sentiment was so strong that it was not uncommon to see signs that read "Help wanted—no Irish need apply." As a result, the Irish were often only permitted to apply for the most dangerous and difficult jobs, which included, in the early 1800s, firefighter and police officer.

Work-related deaths for firemen and cops were not uncommon, and when one or more of these deaths occurred, the Irish community would hold a traditional Irish funeral, which always included the mournful bagpipes. Over the years, this tradition eventually spread to firefighters and police officers who were not of Irish descent, and today bagpipes are commonly played at funerals for a variety of state workers.

Modern Ceremonies

If it's an Irish tradition, why are Scottish bagpipes used? In short, it's because Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are significantly louder than traditional Irish uilleann pipes, which makes them ideal for large outdoor ceremonies. Though it's likely that both types of pipes were used at funerals in the 1800s, the Great Highland bagpipes are now used almost universally. Popular funeral songs for the bagpipes include "Amazing Grace," "Danny Boy," "Flowers of the Forest," "Going Home," "My Lagan Love," and "The Mountains of Mourne." ("Amazing Grace," perhaps the most popular funeral song, was written by British sailor John Newton after a fierce storm pounded his ship when it was sailing near the coast of Ireland.)

Fire and police departments in most major cities have a special brigade—usually a division of an Irish fraternal group called The Emerald Society—that learns how to play bagpipes and drums for the very purpose of honoring their fallen comrades. In some places, civilians may be members of the pipe and drum band, but generally, the members are active or retired firefighters and police officers. At some ceremonies bagpipe players wear traditional Scottish or Irish dress, including a kilt and tunic.

Bagpipes are not only popular at traditional funerals. The instrument is also an important part of military ceremonies, especially in England and in former parts of the British Empire such as India and Australia. The bagpipes were popularized by Scottish Highland regiments, which played the instrument during military ceremonies, funerals, and memorials. Today, pipe bands—which are made up of bagpipe players and drummers—often play during parades and national holidays. Bagpipes are also played in Italy, Hungary, Turkey, and other parts of the world.