Firefighters’ mourning rituals steeped in tradition

Firemen saluted as the body of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. was brought to a Watertown funeral home.
Firemen saluted as the body of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. was brought to a Watertown funeral home.

It began with the solemn removal of the body of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. by members of his own firehouse and will conclude next week with the skirl of the bagpipes and the ringing of the bells at funerals for Walsh and Michael R. Kennedy.

They are the somber rituals honoring firefighters killed in the line of duty, which are playing out in dramatic succession across Boston right now, reflecting a profession steeped in tradition and a brotherhood accustomed to losing its own, firefighters said.

The customs draw partly on the Irish heritage and military backgrounds that have long suffused firefighting ranks nationally, according to firefighters and historians, and many of the rituals are standardized: the black shroud across the uniform badges, posting of the honor guard, even the seating order at the funeral.


Other moments draw more from instinct or circumstance: the Massport firefighters who formed two columns at the terminal to greet Walsh’s relatives as they arrived at Logan International Airport Thursday, or the raising of the Boston Fire Department flag and the lowering of the US flag at City Hall Plaza to meet at half-staff Friday. But all convey the same message.

Supporters lined the procession bearing Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy’s body.
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“It’s a show of respect for the family, and it’s a tribute from us as firefighters,” said Bob Kilduff Jr., a third-generation Boston firefighter and the director of operations for the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. “It’s really hard to explain, except to say that our job, if you break it all down to the bare bones, [is that] we show up at somebody’s really bad day and try to make it a little better.”

Take the firefighters from other companies who lined the barricade and removed their helmets when Walsh’s body was removed from the scene of the fire Wednesday, or those who lined the streets and kept their helmets on while saluting the hearse bearing Kennedy’s body across Boston to a West Roxbury funeral home Thursday.

It’s all part of the ritual of healing, Kilduff said, meant first as a sign of support and respect for Walsh, Kennedy, and their relatives, but also as a commitment to each other. Firefighters speak of their colleagues as brothers and as a “second family,” so it all falls under the banner of “respect for the family,” he explained.

And the tens of thousands expected to travel to Boston from around the state and across the country for the funerals will form a breathtaking “sea of blue” enveloping the mourners, Kilduff said, one big extended family. “The only thing that really makes you know the difference is the patch on the sleeve,” he said. “The hearts are all in the same place.”


Peter Molloy, executive director of the National Historical Fire Foundation’s Hall of Flame museum, said some of the traditions, like bagpipes, trace to the early days of American firefighting and the Hibernian heritage of so many firefighters.

“It’s such a dramatic way of marking the death of somebody, that it was adopted by all firefighters, whether they’re Irish or not,” said Molloy, whose Phoenix museum includes a Hall of Heroes honoring firefighters killed in the line of duty, a gallery where Kennedy and Walsh will be memorialized.

The Boston Fire Department’s flag was raised at City Hall Plaza in mourning for the fallen firefighters.

Molloy said the ceremonial bellringing at firefighter funerals was inspired by the system of tones used to communicate via the two-way Gamewell alarm boxes, manufactured in Newton, that sprouted across the country starting in the late 19th century.

Though the boxes have largely fallen by the wayside, the bells that mimic their tones remain at the funerals. The number of rings varies regionally, but they convey the same meaning: the end of a shift or the end of an emergency and return to quarters, symbolic of the loss of life, according to Molloy and the funeral protocol outlined by the International Association of Fire Fighters .

Other hallmarks — like crossed aerial ladders draped with a flag, possible after hydraulics replaced spring-
assisted ladders — started showing up as early as the 1940s, Molloy said.


In the Back Bay Wednesday night, the removal of Walsh’s body was a profound moment. After a fireball washed over the two firefighters in the ground-level basement at 298 Beacon St., an extraction team removed Kennedy at about 3 p.m. and began chest compressions while rushing him to the hospital, fire officials said. But fire was so intense that firefighters had to leave Walsh’s body in place for four hours as they tried to extinguish the fire amid a ferocious wind. When the extraction team went back in, the roof was gone, and the compromised walls were in danger of collapsing, a scene imprinted on the memory of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

“I watched the men and women go into that building and retrieve their brother as the top floor of that building lit up,” he said. “I watched the brave men and women of our Fire Department go into that building and retrieve one of their own.”

Members of Lieutenant Walsh’s Boylston Street firehouse, Ladder 15 and Engine 33, met the extraction team in back of the building, placed Walsh’s body in a rescue basket, and draped him with American flags before carrying him down a narrow pathway and over a fence separating the back alley from Storrow Drive below, where an ambulance waited. Dozens of firefighters formed a line along the fence, saluting as Walsh’s body passed.

It was part of an array of rituals to conclude next week. Their meaning, Kilduff said, is the same as the less visible support firefighters will continue to provide to the men’s relatives after the ceremony subsides.

“It’s a loss of a family member,” he said. “It’s part of the healing process.”

Maria Cramer and Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at