A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do they play bagpipes at police funerals?

September 11, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Why do they play bagpipes at police funerals?

Cecil replies:

Because a lot of cops are Irish. I know, you probably think bagpipes are a Scottish instrument. But in fact both the Irish and Scottish branches of the Celtic tribes played them, and some argue about who invented them. A dying art a century ago, bagpipe playing was revived in large part by Irish immigrants to the New World who wanted to preserve their culture. Many of these guys were cops. For instance, Francis O'Neill, Chicago police chief from 1901 to 1905, organized an "Irish music club" that sparked renewed interest in the bagpipes. When cops wanted to salute their fallen brethren they thought quite naturally of the pipes, which had been played at funerals for hundreds of years. A big promoter of this practice over the past half century has been the Emerald Society, an Irish fraternal organization found at many police departments. Many chapters sponsor pipe-and-drum bands. Being practical folk, cops use the Scottish version of the bagpipes, which is louder and better suited to outdoor use than the Irish counterpart. In recent years the instrument has gotten a boost from the movie Braveheart, where it's featured in a wonderfully spooky mourning scene. If you've seen the film, you'll agree that being sent on your way with bagpipes is the only way to go.

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