It is a sad occasion to witness a fallen officer, especially when it was in the line of duty. We owe the security we enjoy to their sacrifice. Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line daily to serve the greater good and because they pledged to protect the public and uphold the law.
Therefore, when the life of a police officer is lost, regardless of the circumstance, it is only appropriate to honor them for their duty. The funeral should reflect their diligence, service, and dedication.
You therefore must have witnessed at some point, a sad occasion where a long procession with police escort makes its way to the cemetery. The city or town normally comes to a standstill because of it.
If the death occurred when the officer was in the line of duty, it attracts uniformed officers from all over the country. They come to demonstrate their brotherhood, unity, and honor to the fallen officer.
Each police department or precinct has unique traditions and customs. A good example is the last radio call. Some precincts include the background of the deceased officer, as well as the length of duty and cause of death.
In other precincts the last radio call could be a few simple words, commonly ending in “Gone, but never forgotten.”
Despite the differing traditions, some common ones cut across all departments. The focus of this post will be on common customs.
The information provided here is meant to help you know how to properly honor a fallen officer especially if you have a family or friend in the force, or if you are in the force and have lost a colleague.
Where to Start
Like with other funeral planning procedures, the deceased’s final wishes take priority. In the same way, the final wishes of the fallen officer are first considered.
That is why some police departments have their officers document what they would like for their funeral after their demise. The important information includes a designated representative from the department to handle the process.
It could be a partner or close friend in the force. The officer can also indicate what type of interment is desired as well as who the pallbearers will be. They can even specify the preferred music, clergy, and any other information the officer may deem necessary.
Aside from the deceased officer’s last wishes, the next opinion that takes priority is that of the family. The family’s wishes outweigh the traditions that a department has.
For this reason, the department must consult with the family while planning on how to honor a fallen officer. They need to be made aware of the department’s traditions in such cases. This is in terms of what’s normally done, what needs to be done, and what can be done to honor the deceased officer.
For example, if the family can have the last radio call to honor the deceased, then they should be informed beforehand, and not after the funeral.
It is important to include the family in the planning. That way, they can decide what elements of the department’s traditions can be included and excluded.
If the sound of gunshots is too traumatizing for the family, they could opt for a “21 bells” ceremony instead of the three-volley salute at the cemetery.
In any case, the family should never feel pressured to partake in any of the department’s traditions if they are not comfortable. They only need to understand what the options are.
Types of Police Funerals
The kind of service offered to a fallen officer depends on several factors, especially the circumstance of death as well as their category. There are normally five categories to consider.
A fallen soldier who died in the line of active duty. The death could have occurred directly during the incident or after but because of the incident. In such a case full military honors are made available.
A fallen soldier who was on active duty but died in a non-traumatic way. They could have had a stroke or have been ill before passing. In such a case some or full military honors are done. In the case of suicide, some departments are reluctant to offer any honors because the act of suicide is seen to taint the badge.
More and more departments today are, however, open to the idea and can offer some or full honors for the deceased.
Death of a civilian employee who worked for the department. Whether or not the funeral entails any of the military honors will depend on the department.
This involves the death of a retired officer or the family member of an active or retired employee of the department. In such cases, it is up to the department to decide whether or not the deceased gets any honors.
Depending on the category, the service can either be formal, with full military honors, or informal with some of the military honors. The family has the right to decide what type of service they would prefer including whether it should be private or public. The fallen soldier’s final wishes also matter the most when deciding.
Procedures Immediately After a Line of Duty Death
If an officer dies, especially in the line of duty, there are certain procedures to be followed. This is in terms of when the news is spread. The family has the priority of being informed about the death before it’s released to the media.
The senior chaplain, chief officer, or designated department representative should be the ones to notify the family and in-person if possible. The department representative after that becomes the family’s liaison throughout the process until they are no longer needed by the family.
The department can start the period of mourning once the family has been involved. Some of the common signs that a department is in mourning include the flag at half-staff.
The officers also wear shrouded badges, where a black cloth or tape is placed horizontally across the badge. A bunting may also be displayed on the cruiser and station, on the day of the funeral service.
The department must have a representative who acts as the single point of contact for the deceased’s family. The family’s liaison has the responsibility of offering 24-hour support to the family, for as long as they need it.
The support includes transportation to view the body as well as at the funeral. This support can be offered even up to a year after the funeral if the family requires it. That is why the liaison needs to be a close friend to the family.
In larger departments, the family liaison works with a team of officers for the funeral planning process. The liaison together with the chaplain, are responsible for discussing the military-style funeral traditions with the family.
They discuss with them the various options available for an honorable send-off for a fallen officer. While the family’s liaison is making arrangements for the actual funeral, the traffic unit officer plans on how the procession will proceed. The officer in charge of cemetery details also makes arrangements for the interment or inurnment.
The department is also responsible for offering 24-hour security detail for the family until after the funeral. Shifts are also assigned so that the body of the deceased is watched round the clock until the funeral.
Other roles include the ushers, pallbearers, and a color guard during the funeral. The family has the right to appoint who they want for these roles.
Keeping in line with the deceased’s last wishes and the family’s preferences, the department will arrange for a location big enough to accommodate all attendees. They will also plan the reception or luncheon as well as the procession.
Several officers who were close friends of the deceased are also expected to write eulogies to be read at the service.
Casket Watch and Honor Guard
Officers who die in the line of duty are always given full military honors. That begins with the casket watch which is considered a great honor for those given the duty. It involves a team of two officers, standing vigil, on either end of the casket facing each other.
There are normally 15-30 minutes shifts so two other officers will come to relieve them at the right time. Normally, the casket watch is done for viewings and wakes. It starts 30 minutes before and ends 30 minutes after the wake or viewing. Most departments, however, choose to have the casket watch until the funeral.
Aside from the casket watch, there is the honor guard. This is the team that coordinated the ceremonial aspects of the day. They include the pallbearers, color guards, and casket watch. These roles require people with training and experience.
Among other duties, they’ll be responsible for carrying the flag, standing guard, and folding the flag that’s normally placed over the casket.
It is recommended to have a minimum of 21 members in the honor guard. That is, 8 firing parties, 6 pallbearers, 6 flag team, and 1 funeral commander. If possible, however, there could be even up to 30 or 40 members in the honor guard.
This is because there is a probability that some of the appointed members may be unable to participate on that day. It could be either due to grief, or maybe falling sick, or having an emergency.
Either way, it is better to be prepared. That is why even for small departments, it is advisable to liaise with neighboring departments.
Other acts of honor that are performed on the day of the funeral include the 3-volley salute or 21 bell ceremony. There is also the playing of Taps and bagpipes as well as the flyover and releasing of doves. The casket will also be covered with the flag, which will be folded and handed to the family after the casket is lowered.
Etiquette for Uniformed Members
Like with normal funerals, police funerals follow similar funeral etiquette with a few additional rules. One rule that most uniformed officers are confused about is when they are meant to remove their covers (hats).
The general rule is that, apart from the honor guard and color guard, all other uniformed officers should remove their hats when they enter the service.
On the other hand, all uniformed officers are meant to salute the fallen officer when they approach the casket as a sign of respect. They are, however, not allowed to ever salute without wearing their hats, hence the dilemma.
The best solution is to remove the hat when entering the service. When approaching the casket, the uniformed officer can offer a short prayer in honor of the fallen officer. Thereafter, they can wear their hat for a sharp salute before returning to their seat where they can once again remove their hats.
Suggested Order of Events
Different departments have a preferred order of events. The following, however, is the suggested order, especially for a full honor service. To begin with, before the funeral service, the family is escorted to the staging area, along with the casket, by the honor guard.
From there the chief officer can start the ceremony followed by the honor guard performing their duties. That is the pallbearers will take the casket to its place of honor, the casket watch team will then take their positions on either side of the casket. After the color guard will present the colors. From there the funeral service can officially begin.
In the case of a religious service, the beginning would an invocation followed by a short prayer. From there, there can be opening remarks and greeting, where all the guests are welcomed while special music is being played.
The clergy can then read the scriptures and give a few remarks before other speakers are invited. The speakers are normally in the hierarchy of positions. For example, if the mayor is present, he/she will be the first to speak, followed by the locally elected district representative.
After that a federal or state official can speak, before family representatives are invited. From there the union representative followed by the department representative are finally allowed to speak. Once the speeches are down, the eulogy can be read.
This can be done either by the Chief, Family, or dignitary present. After the eulogy, some special music along with presentations if any can be conducted, before the closing remarks and prayers, ending of the service.
The activity that follows is the 21 bells ceremony in honor of the fallen officer, followed by bagpipes playing a song like Amazing Grace for example. From there, the last radio call may be conducted before the color guard retires the colors.
The pallbearers can then remove the casket and the dismissals instructions can be given at this point. The honor guard’s duties, however, continue through the procession to the cemetery.
Here the departments differ in terms of traditions. Some opt to conduct activities like the 3-volley salute or 21 bells ceremony and last radio call at the cemetery instead of the service. Other than that, during the internment, activities like folding of the flag, flyover, playing of Taps and bagpipes as well as releasing of doves are conducted.
The department is normally in charge of securing the location where the funeral service can be held. The venue needs to be large enough to accommodate several thousands of guests and mourners. It should also have a parking lot big enough to accommodate the entire procession.
This is because, especially in the case of a line of duty death, officers, dignitaries, and mourners can come from different cities, states, or even nations to pay their last respects. Great options for such large groups can be a large church, a school auditorium, or a civic auditorium.
The death of a police officer is a sad occasion, especially, if they were diligent and honest officers who upheld their pledge to protect and uphold the law. An honorable send-off is the very least they deserve for having put their life on the line for the sake of the greater good.