A man in a brown blazer knelt by his son’s grave sprinkling water from a Poland Springs bottle onto the loose dirt. Tears dampened his cheeks.
“All I can do is have a sip of water and share it with my son,” said Paul Kennedy. His son, firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, died March 26 along with Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh while battling a blaze on Beacon Street . “This is all that’s left, to water the earth.”
All around him stood firefighters in crisp dress blues, men and women in an extended family defined not by blood, but by courage and camaraderie. Their traditional memorial observance for fallen firefighters Sunday morning was steeped in uncommon sorrow as they remembered Kennedy, 33, and Walsh, 43, at Forest Hills Cemetery.
“We are privileged to be a part of something special, the Boston Fire Department, whose primary mission is to help someone in need. There is no higher calling,” Interim Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson said. “Too often, the price of this mission is more than we want, but we accept the cost, we bear the burden, and we collectively suffer as only a firefighting family can.”
The homage overwhelmed the elder Kennedy, who said firefighters and complete strangers have given him “unbelievable” support in the last few months.
“He was my son,” he said. “We used to have coffee, go to lunch. To have him be referred to as a hero is amazing.”
Walsh’s family was on hand for the observance in Fireman’s Lot, too, but declined to comment through a fire official.
Kennedy said his son was an only child who joined the Marine Corps and the Fire Department in search of a brotherhood he may have missed while growing up. Michael Kennedy was a proud man, his father said, and he loved the Fire Department for the same principles that speakers mentioned during the memorial service Sunday.
They talked of bravery and friendship, of loyalty and duty.
“We are willing to die for strangers, it’s as simple as that,” said Richard Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718.
John Reilly, 83, a retired firefighter from Roslindale, said in an interview that he has attended many memorial services since he joined the department in 1958. “I didn’t want to miss this year,” he said, sitting in a wheelchair at the edge of Fireman’s Lot in his old blue Engine 42 shirt.
“We’re a close-knit group of guys,” he said. “[It shows] that we look out for each other, and we show up to pay our respects for those that came before.”
Rosemary Minehan invoked General George S. Patton Jr., telling the crowd that “These human beings are made up of flesh and blood and a miracle fiber called courage.”
Minehan’s brother, 44-year-old Stephen Minehan, died in 1994 while fighting a fire at a warehouse in Charlestown. His truck had been packed and ready to go for the family’s annual camping trip to Martha’s Vineyard, she said.
For a while after her brother’s death, Minehan said, she would reach for the phone to call him. The passing of a young firefighter is difficult to accept, Minehan said, and she understands the “unrelenting heaviness of the heart” that Walsh’s and Kennedy’s families feel.
“We have been left a legacy by Eddie and Michael for we, each of us, has been given a new star in the night sky, given a light in the darkness, given the best possible illustration of the most basic element of what we call civilization: one human being reaching out to help another,” she said.
Kathy Crosby-Bell, Kennedy’s mother, said the memorial service showed that her son will never be forgotten.
“It was a very moving ceremony,” Crosby-Bell said. “It was just more proof that firefighters come out for firefighters, and they always will.”
Her son rests under the statue of a firefighter in a plot with others who died like him, still part of the brotherhood his father said he valued so much. Birds chirped softly there Sunday morning, and golden light spilled through thick boughs overhead. His grave is so new, it still has a temporary marker.
On Sunday, Paul Kennedy drove to the cemetery in a black GMC pickup with a veteran’s license plate. Though he may have it now, the elder Kennedy said the truck will always belong to his son.
Firefighting union stickers decorated the back window, next to the logo of the “American Infidels,” a motorcycle club for combat veterans.
A box full of photographs of Michael lay in the back seat. Country music played on the radio. Empty water bottles littered the truck bed.
Paul Kennedy waited until Fireman’s Lot was empty before he left the cemetery.
“The hardest part of being here is leaving here,” he said, because it feels a little like abandoning Michael each time.
Kennedy drove the pickup through Dorchester, until he reached Florian Hall, home to Local 718.
Two slabs of stone on the building’s outer wall bear the names of firefighters who have died in the line of duty — 91 until Sunday, when Kennedy and Crosby-Bell stood under the hot morning sun and watched as fire officials dropped a black curtain, revealing the 92d and 93d names. Edward J. Walsh and Michael R. Kennedy, set forever in granite.Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.