Firefighters, like any other emergency rescue service providers, play an integral role in our society. The risks involved in the job are numerous, yet these brave men and women put their lives in peril almost every day. These professionals take all the precautions while on the job, but sometimes tragedies happen. Many fearless firefighters have lost their lives in their jobs.
Firefighter funerals and their memorial services are full-grown with custom. These customs are designed to pay proper respects upon these local heroes’ demise, who put their lives at risk every day for the people. Ceremonies organised by the Fire department hold an essential place in honouring the firefighters who gave their lives on the line of duty. These firefighters funeral procession is somewhat similar to the ones practised in the military.
Here, we’re aiming to present a short yet thorough outline of fire department customs regarding firefighter funeral service and memorial services. We are not trying to replicate procedural manuals and detailed guides for firefighter funerals that are readily available on the internet; instead, we will provide the readers with the best information on firefighters funerals. The information compiled here is intentioned to be of convenience to the fire department and the friends and family of the deceased firefighters. The guide is as follows:
Steps to Follow after a Line of Duty Death
The family of the deceased firefighter must be informed as soon as possible, preferably before the press. Once the family has been notified in accordance with the fire department policy, the mourning period starts. The mourning gestures can include covered badges, banner placed on the fire engine or the firefighter’s gear and equipment, and the fire station building. Finally, the country’s flag at the fire station should be lowered to half-mast.
Most departments appoint a member from the force to act as the emergency contact with the deceased’s family. It is of utmost importance for a person to serve as the department’s point of contact, and it’s better if that person knows the deceased’s family quite well. Provision for support should be readily available to the dead family, any time of the day. More significant departments appoint a Survivor Action Officer, who heads a group of professionals who then work on the firefighter funeral’s various aspects. For example, while the Family Liaison Officer discusses the different options for a traditional funeral ceremony with full military-like honours, the Funeral Officer takes care of the funeral ceremony arrangement. The Cemetery Officer manages the accounts for the memorial service or interment. If the department has a pastor, some of these responsibilities will fall on him or her.
Other responsibilities that can be taken on by the department include:
- Assigning an honour guard for the wake or viewing.
- Finding a colour guard for the funeral.
- Naming ushers for the service.
- Selecting pallbearers to carry the coffin or the urn, in case the family chose to conduct a private funeral before the ceremony.
- Arranging a location that has sufficient space to hold a large funeral, preparing for the viewing ceremony, and planning a luncheon or other gathering after the service. One or more department officials may write a eulogy based on a close personal friendship or knowledge of the deceased. All of these decisions must take the deceased’s family’s final wishes into consideration, and the department must respect the family’s decision.
How to Start Planning a Firefighter Funeral and the Memorial Service
The first step is to publish an obituary. Find out about the process of submitting the obituary in the newspaper before you compose an obituary, check-in your regional newspapers or national dailies (based on how many people you need to inform) for any print-related queries. The easiest way is to contact the newspaper office over the phone or by e-mailing them. Some newspaper agencies provide this information on their websites. These newspapers accept obituaries through their web portals or by e-mails. Check their website for the prerequisites and the format you should follow. Go through the obituaries in the paper you need your obituary to be printed and pay attention to the format to more readily tailor your composition, so you don’t make your obituary excessively long or excessively short. Check-in with the Department Head and the deceased’s family regarding the nature and the content of the obituary.
Next, ask if the family wants to compose the obituary on their own, let them compose it and offer to publish it. If they’d much rather the department do it, make sure that the Family Liason Officer takes care of it. Before writing an obituary, it is essential to have a format in mind. A simple method to build this format is to prepare guide questions about the deceased. Some of these guide questions are included below:
• How would you describe your loved one’s personality?
• What were his proudest accomplishments?
• What were his hobbies and special interest?
• What are the unique personality traits of your loved one?
• How would he like to be remembered?
You can compose two versions of the eulogies: the abridged version for the newspaper based on the line rate and a more extended, more detailed version of the same for online forums like the funeral service website, the fire department’s social media accounts and the fire department office or other in memoriam websites. The shorter one should ideally contain the announcement of death and the information of the funeral and the memorial service. The longer one can contain a summary of the life they have lived: their achievements, their hopes and aspirations, likes and interests, etc. One can also include personalised messages from the loved ones of the deceased. Here’s a short guide to writing a good obituary:
- The first step is to note down all the necessary information we need to include in the obituary. This includes personal information of the deceased, information about the family, along with the details of the wake and funeral. This gives us an idea about what we want to include and guarantees that we don’t miss any vital piece of information. It will make it easier for us in writing the obituary.
- Mention the deceased’s fundamentals, which include their complete name (first, middle, and last name) along with prefixes like Mr. or Mrs. and suffixes like Jr., Sr., III, etc. Next, mention their age, along with the time and the place of death. Mention that they died on the line of duty. Keep the initial sentence brief and precise.
- Use third-person narration and first-person narration as the obituary is about the deceased and not about the family members.
- The use of “died” should be avoided as it might appear to be too blunt or in poor taste. Instead, you can go with the expression “passed away” or “departed”. You can also use “went with the Lord” or “left for a heavenly abode” if they were religious. Use whatever you think the deceased would’ve wanted.
- Remember that this is one of those instances where less is more, so do not write a lot, or people will indeed skim through it and probably miss reading the highlights. Use a few words to make the obituary precise yet impactful by mentioning only the most important events.
- Include a few important achievements, contributions, and acknowledgements, but pick carefully. It would be best to have a clear idea about what you want to include and what you don’t. Make an outline, especially if the deceased is associated with numerous social organisations, multiple workplaces, and a variety of hobbies and interests.
- Mention family members by their first names, their spouses’ first name in brackets, followed by their surnames. If the couple is unmarried, include the partner’s first name and surname, both in brackets. Consider people most important to the deceased like uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and dearest friends. Even if they are not related by blood, like adopted children, stepsiblings or friends, you must include them because they were essential to the deceased. Nowadays, obituaries mention life-long acquaintances and even pets.
- If the memorial service and the funeral are public affairs, you can give the necessary details. Suppose you are conducting a public ceremony, including the time, date, and funeral home location. Make sure to be specific about the details so people close to the deceased will know where to come or send flowers.
- If it is a private service, do not provide funeral or memorial information. You can mention it is a private service and ask people to send flowers instead.
- A photograph distinguishes the deceased and permits readers to identify your loved one from the other obituaries. Pick a picture that reflects your loved one’s nature. Ask if the family wishes to put up a photo of the deceased in uniform—a photograph where they’re doing something they like or looking happy works best. In case you’re struggling to choose one shot for the newspaper, remember that you will have the option to include more pictures and even video recordings on the online version of the obituary.
- Towards the end of the obituary, you can include a request for donations towards a particular cause important to the deceased. You can mention organisations or charities that your loved one was attached to. This will help carry their legacy forward, and through this donation, the deceased can continue doing the good work, even in death.
- Get it checked from the family. Ask them to edit it according to their wish. Make them feel included.
- The final step is to send in the obituary to the newspaper(s) of your choice. Just make sure you’re aware of the format that obituaries are printed in, in that newspaper. Make sure you send it in before the deadline. Make sure you send in the obituary 2-3 days before the memorial service so people can make the necessary arrangements to be at the memorial service. Keep in touch with the newspaper agency so they can inform you if any changes are to be made to your obituary.
Next, after the deceased’s obituary has been taken care of, the family must be consulted about the funeral service. The family’s wishes outweigh the customs of the fire department, so while the department’s Family Liaison Officer is to be present all the time during the planning process, the family can choose to select only those aspects of the service they want to have included. For example, the fire department’s tradition might call for the fire department honour guard to stand watch at the casket during the viewing; the family may decline for any reason. They should entirely be made aware of the options present and should not be pressured into including a ritual only because the fire department wants it, or “the public wishes to see this.”
The final step for planning a firefighter’s memorial service is to honour the deceased firefighter’s last wishes if they are known. Fire departments that plan for this sort of thing (obviously hoping that these plans would never be required to be followed) should instruct each firefighter to write down precisely what is desired at a memorial, citing the risks of losing their lives on the line of duty. This could include clergy, pallbearers, the kind of music, the memorial/funeral ceremony, and any other details the firefighter wants to have.
The Honor Guard and Ceremony for the Viewing
If the family has desired an honour guard, a guard needs to be picked, or the family can ask for a specific department member. The honour guard’s only duty is to stand watch during the viewing or memorial. A team of two can take a 30-minute vigil (starting 30 minutes before the wake and ending 30 minutes after). One can be present at the head and the other at the foot of the casket. A second-team can relieve them every 30 minutes.
Some departments build up the honour guard to include the pallbearers and a colour guard for the fireman’s funeral ceremony. These ceremonies need up to 20 people with designations and training required for those tasked with standing guard at the casket, carrying flags, folding the flag that drapes the casket, and performing other required duties.
A “walkthrough” is an official ceremony during the memorial or the wake. At a prearranged time, uniformed officials and guests enter and pass by the casket in a single file. Music played by the department band accompanies this. Each firefighter briefly stops at the casket to pay their respects to the deceased firefighter. Although individual fire departments usually have their ways of doing things in this ceremony, specific points of agreement on memorialising and honouring a fallen hero properly. For example, a “Last Alarm Service” calls for the bell is tolled three times or tolling the bell in three sets of fives. What everyone seems to agree upon, though, is that a bell service is an integral part of firefight funerals and memorial services. Some departments also go for the 21 Guns salute, which is also practised in the military and for the police. A “Placing of the Glove” service is less common, in which department officials remove their right gloves and position them on the casket.
The family should be informed of the exact time and procedure for the walkthrough and the other customs to be followed in the firefighter’s funeral procession and the memorial service.
Etiquette for uniformed members
The most confusing query seems to be, “When does one remove one’s cover?” The answer is quite simple. It is okay to remove your cover when entering the church or funeral home unless you are a pallbearer or a member of the honour guard, or a colour guard. They must wear their hats at all times. Others can don their respective hats once they step outside.
Another question that is repeatedly enquired about is if one should salute the casket inside with their hats or without them. The protocol is kind of self-contradictory here: One shouldn’t wear their hats inside, but can’t salute if they’re not wearing their hats. The best is to salute the casket first, with your hat on and then take it off. A statement comes from David Reichardt of the Long Beach Fire Department, California, addresses the problem:
“I had been trained to remove my hat once I was inside. But, it is not civil to salute if you are not wearing your ceremonial hat. From experience, I can say that, when one proceeds towards the coffin of the martyred fellow marshall, one should pause, dedicate a prayer, don their hats, give a sharp salute, followed by lowering the salute slowly. Then one should turn and go back to their respective seats, removing their hats after they’re seated in their place of assembly.”
This is usually followed by the prayer service and delivery of eulogies from the family and the department. Here, make sure that the family members get the opportunity to eulogise first. A nice gesture would be to announce a charity in honour of the deceased firefighter and urge the guests to contribute.
People make sure that they participate in honouring a public hero, so the fire department and the family must ensure that the firefighter funeral service is a befitting ceremony and honours the firefighter’s memory. This is the only thing people will remember for years to come. Thus you need to make sure it’s meaningful to the deceased and their loved ones.