The salutes swept along Centre Street like a rolling wave, 10,000 firefighters in dress blues snapping gloved hand to hat brim, one after the other, just ahead of the funeral procession for Michael R. Kennedy.
On a crisp spring morning in West Roxbury, several honor guards stood at rigid attention outside Holy Name Church as scores of bagpipes skirled. First came Kennedy’s truck, Ladder 15, draped in flowers, moving at deliberate speed. Then its partner, Engine 33, bearing Kennedy’s body in a mahogany casket wrapped in an American flag, perched atop a gleaming bier inlaid with the department’s Maltese cross. His turnout coat hung from the rear of the truck.
The Marine and the firefighter in Kennedy might have relished the display. He loved the discipline, tradition, and sense of brotherhood that defined the two callings of his adult life. But at 33, he was not far removed from the teen who bagged groceries at the Roche Bros. along this very route — a daydreamer and a prankster then, as impish and unpredictable as he was big-hearted and charming.
His mother used to say, “Michael, you’re either going to prison, or the White House,” said the Rev. John Unni, drawing a rumble of laughter from the thousand mourners packed into the church, many of whom knew Kennedy before and after 6½ years in the Marine Corps shaped his character.
The part they always cherished about Kennedy — his playful, freewheeling spirit — remained until the end. He may have been a ruggedly built Iraq combat veteran who loved to ride motorcycles, skydive, and compete on the CrossFit circuit, but he was still the friend they knew as “Dork,” with the song “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King” loaded onto his iPod.
Still, the sergeant who returned from the Marines and joined the Boston Fire Department in 2007 had a singular sense of purpose: to serve others. Off the clock, he devoted himself to charities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation.
“Michael Kennedy made the world a safer place, a more decent place, and — as his friends have said to us — a more fun place,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “The loss of such a courageous, vibrant man leaves a void in our communities that is impossible to fill.”
The mayor, like Unni, was speaking for the second day in a row at a firefighter’s funeral. Kennedy and Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. perished March 26 after they led the charge against a fast-moving fire in an apartment building at 298 Beacon St., becoming trapped in the basement after an explosion.
And so it was the second day of solemn ritual and extraordinary pageantry — the same visiting firefighters from three continents standing sentinel outside the church, the same ladder truck and engine rolling slowly along the most mournful of runs, the same haunting ring of a ceremonial engine bell, the same soaring voice of Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, the notes of “Ave Maria” and “Danny Boy” prompting tears and chills at once.
Kennedy and Walsh, whose funeral was held Wednesday in Watertown, will be honored Friday with a moment of silence at the Red Sox’s home opener at Fenway Park, not far from their firehouse. “To all of you in that beautiful, long, powerful line known as firefighters, truly, we are family. And in a special way this morning, we acknowledge the members of Ladder 15 and Engine 33, who, with firefighter Michael Kennedy’s family and Lieutenant Ed Walsh’s family, are grieving so very, very much with all of us,” said the Rev. Daniel Mahoney, chief chaplain of the Fire Department.
Unni, a Back Bay parish priest who knew both firefighters because of the proximity of his rectory to the firehouse, acknowledged the drain so many felt. “Emotionally, I don’t know, last night I was just exhausted,” he said, to the family members — and the firehouse family — packed into the front rows, among an array of city and state officials.
“I can only imagine where you guys are with your exhaustion,” he said, asking everyone to try to tap into a spiritual reserve “that allows us to be with each other in this way that gives us the strength, that heals us and comforts us.”
His homily was laced with profound sorrow and with humor. He noted how Kennedy’s spirit lived through the boy he mentored through the Big Brother program, Alex Beauzile, who asked the priest at the wake which of the young men in line had the strongest grip. He had no easy answers for Kennedy’s father, Paul, whom he said confided in him, “He’s my only son, and I prayed and prayed for his protection, and it didn’t take.”
He told mourners that God would want them to focus on “the how and the what” of Kennedy’s life, and to honor his memory by trying to do as much in their time on earth as he crammed into his 33 years.
Richard Paris, president of Boston Fire Fighters Local 718, said he could not make sense of the tragedy that had killed two men of the finest character. But he could imagine Kennedy, like Walsh, looking over them all. “You can bet when Mike arrived at the gates of heaven, St. Florian” — patron saint of firefighters — “met him there and said, ‘Well done, Michael, my faithful friend, well done,’ ” Paris said, his voice quavering as he began to address Kennedy directly. “Michael, God bless you, brother. Rest in peace. Please keep us all safe.”
Paris joined International Association of Fire Fighters general president Harold Schaitberger in presenting a medal of honor to Kennedy’s father, which drew a standing ovation.
Raised in Roslindale, Milton, and West Roxbury, Kennedy was initially an only child but acquired a blended family of step-siblings and adopted siblings after his mother, Kathy, remarried. One of his much younger adoptive brothers, Tomas Crosby-Bell, joined Beauzile in presenting the gifts during the Eucharist.
A cousin, Davin Patrick Kennedy, called him “a larger-than-life character,” speaking about his athletic exploits and his romantic side, his trademark blend of “strength and compassion.”
He once painted the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” — a favorite childhood song of his girlfriend, Sarah Wessmann — across a beach chair in pink glitter. Kennedy and Wessmann used “1-4-3” as shorthand for “I love you,” the number of letters in the words, so often that he had tattooed it on his forearm in Roman numerals, adding a 7 for “forever.”
As the 2-hour service closed, Peter Starkey, a friend from the Boylston Street firehouse, approached a gleaming bell and intoned four double rings, symbolizing loss in the line of duty. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley delivered the final prayer.
“A firefighter’s death is a reminder to all of us how much we need each other,” O’Malley said. “There can be no real community, there cannot be human existence, without sacrifice, courage, love.”
Kennedy’s casket exited the church the way it came in — with military precision, draped once more with the flag, and carried by 10 firefighter-pallbearers back atop the truck, fastened in place with meticulous care. The pipe and drum corps played “Amazing Grace.” A close friend from the department, Paul McIrney, marched in front with a symbolic helmet. The procession climbed northeast on Centre Street, passing beneath a giant flag draped between two ladder trucks, bound for Forest Hills Cemetery. In front of the church, thousands of firefighters remained in place, saluting until Ladder 15 and Engine 33 were almost out of sight.