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The History of Piping for Fallen Heroes in the US

Written by: Doug
Published: 1st October 2017, last updated: 29th June 2022

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 the 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 honouring fallen heroes.  Military units often had their own pipers and comrades who fell in battle were honoured 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 plays for their fallen heroes as well.  The Pipes brought dignity and 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-colour kilts and a tunic.

Bagpipers have also become a tradition at military and state funerals.  They lend a feeling of reverence and honour 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.

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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.

  • 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

  • Robert Juddb
    11/09/21 - 14:01

    Today in the yr of our lord 2000 & 21, l awoke to bagpipes on my t.v. to honour those list 20 yrs ago today. Yes I openly wept, for those old Scottish pipes move an old man’s soul. For those lost not just on 9/11, 20yrs ago, but for me mum,& dad, aunts, uncles, friends…so many gone in me lifetime that I’ve loved, or knew. Whether you are Scottish or not never forget those whom you loved & knew. Let the pipes help you heal inside. My The Gods of my father Odin, Tyr, Thor, Freya, etc. Help us ALL heal a little this day, & for the remaining days of our lives. HAIL ODIN!!! HAIL AMERICA!!

  • William Hill
    11/09/21 - 14:27

    @Sharon Tucker: Kwaku Alvarez has a right to his opinion as you do to yours. In fact, as I watched the 911 memorial, I asked myself the exact question about bag pipes. So, I googled it and ended up here. You must admit that bag pipes are not used across all American cultures. You may see vocalists, various musical instruments, bugles, bag pipes or sometimes nothing at all. Cultural diversity is American. It is not a threat.


  • Joseph
    24/10/21 - 19:09

    From what I can remember and all that I have witnessed in my 57 years of life, it is traditionally a lone bagpiper that starts and finishes the melody chosen. The other traditional tribute that is not always seen is the lone bagpiper departing the funeral (not the Wake) playing the same tune and marching for up to a mile away. The march away from the gathering had a few significant meanings that were always soothing to hear.

  • John H
    08/03/22 - 13:59

    The Irish brought the Piob Mor / Great Irish Warpipes and their traditions to the US. The Irish Gaels have played bagpipes for a thousand years, at war, events, weddings and funerals. It’s a shared tradition with the Scots we are very proud of. Huge amounts of Irish immigrants joined the Police and Fire Departments and the piping traditions just followed. The Irish and Scots share the large mouth blown bagpipes. Also known as Gaelic Pipes / Irish Marching Bagpipes / Highland Bagpipes to our Scots cousins. The other famous, smaller and quieter Irish Bagpipes are called the Uilleann Pipes. Irish Bagpipers also wear tartan kilts as well as Solid colour.

  • Robert George pleak
    23/07/22 - 01:36

    As a scotch irish lad following tradition I love the pipes and I request amazing grace at my funeral as well as Taps usafss Sgt vietnam airborne cryptolinguist …

  • Jessie Holloway
    05/08/22 - 16:57

    Thanks so much for the bit of history and origin of playing bagpipes at a funeral. I have a friend whose grandpa just died and he’s help plan the funeral. He was Scottish so they want to hire a bagpiper to honor the tradition.

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