A funeral for a police officer killed in the line of duty is like no other funeral I will ever experience. Unfortunately, in my 37-year career in the NYPD I have been to many of them. Hours before the funeral, in every station house – every police facility – police officers gather and change into their dress uniform. They pile into NYPD patrol cars and vans head toward the house of worship where the funeral will be held. On your way to the funeral, on whatever highway you are driving on, you begin to see the vans, the patrol cars, and numerous private vehicles packed with cops in their dress uniforms. You begin to see this while you are still miles from the church. As you get closer, it seems that every vehicle on the highway is filled with police officers going to the funeral. Long caravans of police cars spontaneously form.
When you arrive, you may have to park over a half-mile away, because of the enormous number of officers attending. As you begin that long walk toward the church, you join an army of men and women in uniform, forming a human parade, marching toward the funeral. You walk with officers from every command in the NYPD, from every borough, and so many other police departments from across the country as well. Then, on the block of the service, members of the NYPD Ceremonial Unit line everyone up in formation. The length of the formation, which constantly grows as officers continue to arrive, can span ten blocks in either direction, with up to fifteen thousand police officers there to pay their respects to the fallen officer. Just before the service begins, an officer in the ceremonial unit gives the command, “Attention!”
All talking stops and the army of blue stands at attention, perfectly still. There is complete silence. Then, the first sound is the distant rumbling of motorcycles. A long procession of police motorcycles, mostly NYPD, but with a good number of bikes from other cities, slowly passes. As the bikes pass, you can almost feel the collective thunder of motorcycle engines. As they drive on, there is almost silence again, but for the sound of slow, muffled drums beats, in the direction the motorcycles had come from. A squadron of NYPD Emerald Society bagpipers – more than fifty – performs a slow and somber march, leading the hearse and the rest of the funeral procession to the front of the church. They do not play their bagpipes; they bang their large drums. The bagpipers march on, still playing their instruments until they are far enough away so that they can no longer be heard. The hearse and the limos stop. As the officer’s family is escorted out of the cars by police officers, there is silence again, but for the constant shuttering of the cameras of the numerous news media photographers in a nearby press pen.
Then the ceremonial officer gives the command for a hand salute. That command is followed by thousands of officers on that line snapping their white gloved right hand to their forehead, together as one. As the police officer trumpet player plays “Amazing Grace,” the pallbearers, police officers in full dress uniform, carry the coffin into the church. The police commissioner, the mayor, and other dignitaries follow the family members and friends into the church. They are followed by other ranking members of the NYPD and members of the precinct where the fallen officer worked. The thousands of cops who cannot fit into the church linger in the area outside.
When the service ends, everyone is reassembled, as they had been before. The fallen hero is carried out of the church with the same honor and dignity with which he was brought in. Just before the casket is put back into the hearse, a squadron of NYPD helicopters flies in formation, over the church, in a path visible to the family and all of the officers lined up. The thousands of officers who are lined up saluting the casket do not look up to see them; instead, they see the shadows of the helicopters rapidly moving along the ground, just in front of them. Then, the pallbearers fold the American flag, slowly and ceremoniously. One officer then marches over to the deceased member’s commanding officer and salutes the flag after he hands it over to him. The commanding officer then steps over to the spouse or parent of the officer. The C.O. says a few words and hands over the flag. He or she salutes the flag and walks back into formation. We remain at attention and watch the family get into the limousines. The procession moves out, with the bagpipes playing again, but now following. When the hearse and the row of cars following is out of sight, the officer from the ceremonial unit thanks all assembled, and dismisses everyone. For the thousands of officers lined up, the somber and tearful mood turns to meaningless small talk. From their helpless sorrow and pain, their mood lightens as they interact with each other. “Where do you work now? How are you doing? Do you know sergeant —–?” That idle chatter helps them bring their mood back to “normal.” It helps block out the reality they face and experience every day, and the ever-present risk of injury or death, while they serve and protect our communities.