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The History of Piping for Fallen Heroes in the US

Written by: Doug
Published: 1st October 2017

bagpipes funeral

Brought to the United States over one hundred and fifty years ago by the Scottish immigrants, the bagpipe has become a symbol of mourning for fallen heroes, especially firefighters and policemen.  The hauntingly beautiful music of the pipe is especially suited to songs of mourning whether played by a single piper, ensemble, or by a bagpipe band.


Bagpipes are often thought of as a Scottish instrument but in fact all Celtic people have played bagpipes at funerals, wakes, weddings, and dances for centuries.  They were a tradition that the immigrants from Scotland brought with them to the United States. The British also had a centuries old tradition of using bagpipes in conjunction with honoring fallen heroes.  Military units often had their own pipers and comrades who fell in battle were honored with bagpipe music at their funerals.


When the great potato famine caused a massive influx of immigrants to the East Coast of the United States, they had a difficult time finding jobs.  What became available to them were dirty or dangerous jobs that nobody else wanted.  These were often in the fire and police departments of large cities.  Many died in the performance of their duty and the traditional bagpipes were played at their funerals.  The pipes were a comforting and familiar tribute to them and their heritage.  The mournful and haunting sound of the pipes allowed for a release of emotions often held back. People have related that the sound of the bagpipe music started a release of memories and emotions that began the healing process.


Before long, the families and friends of firefighters and policemen of other ancestry and backgrounds were requesting that a piper play for their fallen heroes as well.  The Pipes brought dignity and a special solemn air to the ceremony as well as a unity to the department.


The Chiefs of fire and police departments were often instrumental in forming bagpipe bands.  Large cities developed pipe bands representing the fire and police departments.  Today many of the bands number more than 60 players.  They wear either Scottish plaid kilts or Irish single color kilts and a tunic.


Bagpipers have also become a tradition at military and state funerals.  They lend a feeling of reverence and honor to the occasion.


Since the bagpipes have a limited range of sounds, music must be specifically written for them.  There are many songs that can be played including traditional songs and newer offerings.  The song most often played at funerals is “Amazing Grace” which is traditionally played at the end of the service by a single piper who may walk slowly away as he plays.

About the author

Written by: Doug

Comments on this post

  • Lady Gabi Hoffmann
    23/10/17 - 17:42

    Very interesting 🙂

  • Ken
    11/09/19 - 14:03

    My mother was a Scot we played the pipes at her to hear them

  • John Johnston
    07/08/20 - 01:50

    I found myself wondering today about why there always seems to be pipes at police, firefighter and some military funerals. I think this article explained it very well. My thanks to the author.

  • Kwaku Alvarez
    07/09/20 - 17:53

    Yeah, I think that playing windpipes is un-American. It props up a specific culture and makes it mainstream for Ameriacan society. The history is cool and all, but as an American, I find this disturbing.

    All Lives Matter!

  • Levi Armstrong
    16/10/20 - 15:24

    It’s good to know that bagpipers often play during military and state funerals because they give a feeling of reverence and honor to the memorial service. That’s probably why my dad is looking for a bagpiper for Grandpa’s funeral next Tuesday. Hopefully, he’ll be able to find one soon since I believe my grandpa would appreciate that gesture. Thanks!

  • Jorge Mario González.
    22/10/20 - 18:37

    I always wanted to know why they play the pipes at police and firefighter funerals. This is a great article.


    Jorge Mario

  • Sharon Tucker
    16/01/21 - 22:27

    @kwaku alvarez… Your comment is disturbing. Your name alone suggests immigration, therefore integration.

    For as long as one foreign culture has been meeting another, customs and arts and religions have been copied, adopted and utilized as something fun, made better sense, something enjoyed.

    And as America is a free country it is EVERYONE’S right to take and use the “other” from different cultures.

    My name doesn’t show it because my mother adopted my name from “american” culture.

    Should I change my name? If that’s what you think, gtfo. She thought it was pretty and different from her culture and race.

    America is the “melting pot of the world”. And once upon a time people were proud to share and see their traditions adopted by others!!!

    And since I don’t hear the entire celtic population screaming in defiance of the use of bagpipes at ceremonies, how about you keep your trap shut.

  • Truin
    09/02/21 - 00:12

    This article was really interesting. My dad leads 2 pipe bands a youth and adult. I have always been around bagpipes so it was interesting to learn a bit more about the instrument my family plays and loves. We also played amazing grace and my grandmothers funeral. Excepted we had me my dad and his close friends playing not just one person. My dad also played a song he wrote for her and my grandfather.

  • James E. Heffernan
    16/02/21 - 16:20

    Around 1954, or there about in Korea: the U.S Marines were piped across Freedom Bridge by the Pipe Band of 41 Commando, British Royal Marines. From that time to now, I love and cherish the pipes. The kilt that I wear is called:“Learherneck Tartin”. At 86 yrs of age, I still proudly wear the kilt.
    Semper Fidelis

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