Funeral Bagpipes: The Traditions and Famous Songs

Published December 29, 2020
Piper playing bagpipes at funeral

The traditional bagpipe is one of the most expressive musical instruments available. The somber melodies performed through the instrument make it perfect for use for mourning during funerals. The use of funeral bagpipes has become prevalent within military and public service communities, as well as in ethnic heritages. This article points to the history of using bagpipes at funerals and popular bagpipes funeral music.

Funeral Bagpipes

The use of the bagpipe in funerals in America has evolved beyond the Irish culture. It is an accepted tradition today for military and most public service officials. At the request of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, bagpipes accompanied the funeral procession of the fallen President. Many religious groups embrace the bagpipes to express with the deepest emotion the songs of their heritage.

Bagpipes' Mediterranean Origins

Many historians believe the bagpipe has its roots in ancient Egypt. As early as 400BCE, there is reference to the "pipers of Thebes." These musicians blew melodies through pipes made from dog skin with fragments of bone. Some believe that the Roman Emperor Nero may have been piping rather than fiddling while Rome was in flames. As Roman soldiers invaded the far reaches of the known world, the bagpipe was brought to Scotland and Ireland.

Celtic Traditions

The bagpipe as it is known today was developed in the Scottish Highlands. The Highland Pipes probably had only one drone in its original form, with a second drone being added in the 1500's and a third in the early 1700's. In the Lowlands, pipers were minstrel musicians traveling and performing at weddings, feasts, and fairs. By the 1700's, the piper had begun to replace the harpist as the preferred musician within the culture.

An Instrument of War

The first significant historical record of the bagpipes in Scotland seems to date from the Battle of Pinkie in 1549. The shrill screech of the bagpipe replaced the trumpet and inspired the Highlanders into battle. The penetrating sound stirred the troops and often scared the enemy. The noise of the bagpipes could be heard at distances up to ten miles. The unique music also pierced the sky to memorialize those lost in battle.

Reaching the New World

After the Great Potato Famine in the mid 1840's, Irish immigrants came to the United States in huge numbers. Highlanders settled in groves in the North Carolina area. Because anti-Irish sentiment was so strong at the time, Scottish and Irish were often not allowed to apply for certain jobs. The Irish were often permitted to apply only for dangerous and difficult jobs that others did not want. In the early 1800's, the jobs included police officers and fire fighters. Work-related deaths were common, and when the deaths occurred, the Irish community would hold a traditional funeral which included the mournful bagpipes.

Funeral Bagpipe Music With Meaning

Music played at a funeral attempts to weave the threads of heritage and legacy with the strands of the mournful passions of the passing of a loved one. The sound of the bagpipe provides a haunting, almost romantic flavor to the interpretation of almost any song. The result is the perfect atmosphere for remembrance and hope. Here are a handful of significant pieces of music understood through the vision of the bagpipe.

Amazing Grace - John Newton

Not only is this one of the most classic hymns of Christianity, the song is often requested for the bagpipe. Originally written in 1772, the hymn continues to have meaning in a funeral service.

Oh Danny Boy - Irish Traditional Tune

If an Irish heritage to the family or the deceased, there cannot be a more traditional Irish tune than "Danny Boy." The song stirs pride and sentiment in most people.

Going Home - William Arms Fisher

This song attempts to present death in a more gentle way, making it a little less scary. The tune was composed by Antonin Dvorak, while the lyrics were penned by his pupil William Arms Fisher.

Skye Boat Song - Roger Whittaker

Roger Whittaker is a Kenyan-British singer-songwriter. His music is a mix of folk and popular styles. This tune is rich in Irish history.

Oft in the Stilly Night - Sarah Brightman

Stirred by memories of the past, this song salutes loved ones and presses healing to a wounded and broken heart. Sarah Brightman is a trained British classical soprano, but delves into the worlds of dance, acting and songwriting. The song is able to touch emotions on many levels.

Stirring the Emotions

Music interpreted by the bagpipe produces a high-pitched, haunting sound. The cultural significance of the instrument makes it an outstanding choice for thinking about history and heritage at a funeral. Bagpipe funeral music is a great way to add significance and meaning to the music played at a funeral to mourn the loss of a loved one.

Funeral Bagpipes: The Traditions and Famous Songs