Last month I visited the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, DC. I stood over the granite wall with the carvings of more than 20,000 names of officers killed for no other reason than reporting for duty.
I knelt at panel 38-E:25 and ran my fingers over his name – Octavio Rafael Gonzales. The feigned smile exchanged the grief I’ve carried over the years for a public show of respect. On the very next panel, number 36-E: 27 – Timothy Bergeron elicited the same response.
All three of us attended the Academy together many years prior, and yet there I stood. The significance of the memorial is not lost on me, or the millions of Americans visiting the memorial.
While I recalled the sadness of each friend’s ceremony, I also understand why the ceremony that followed was greater in preparation, tradition and attendance than the majority of all funerals most any civilian will attend. It has to be for the good of the profession.
Law enforcement requires a unique fitting in period, or more formally called “occupational socialization.” To enter into and continue in this fraternity, it is vital that the individual officer drop previous characteristics making them unique for the sake of operating within the homogeneous community of policing. Within the standard operating organization of policies and procedures; long-haired, freaky people need not apply.
The job is referred to as having a “mystique veiled by a sacred canopy.” The symbolism, pageantry and tradition make our calling noble. It is vital to maintaining the highest levels of loyalty that we see this low-wage earning, long-hour working and risk-taking job as a “calling.” These badges of honor endear us to the service of policing.
Why is a police officer’s line of duty death and funeral so impacting of an agency, a community, and a nation? Are there websites, ceremonies and engraved walls dedicated for fallen teachers, bus drivers or public works employees?
These acts of respect are symbolic insurances to officers, that if I also lay my life down in the service to others, that I will too be memorialized by pageantry and procession. Ceremonial symbolism comforts us to know that if our life is lost in the line of duty, we will be honored not for the way we died, but for how we lived. It is our reassurance policy that in our passing, our families will be cared for and we will be missed.
While the death of an officer is tragic, the tradition of ceremony allows officers to gather within a circle of fraternal isolation. Although the outside world may be watching, they are ritualistically excluded beyond the immediate family of the officer lost.
The collection of individual officers adorned in their most formal dress blues are allowed to not only share each other’s grief, but to mourn what may become our own departure. Whether you knew these officers or not, you see yourself in that casket escorted by the hundreds of police motorcycles and cruisers. You see your wife, kids, family and friends weeping over the casket as it’s closed and the folded American flag is handed to your child as she stands at attention trying to be brave.
Police funerals still touch the psyche of an American public. It reminds them of the frailty between good and evil. The institution of policing is held in societal esteem where good guys are not supposed to lose, much less die. The police funeral also remains a part of the acclimation process into American culture. Somber processions creep past businesses and schools as citizens and students stand at staunch attention in either instructed salutes or flag waving.
Yes, oddly enough police funerals are good for the profession. It reminds cops just how thin that thin blue line really is. It is a vivid reminder that instant, sudden or violent departure preparation remains a part of your calling. While it is a prelude to your own death, it delivers on the promise of brotherhood. After all, establishing close personal relationships among peers is one of the most desired accomplishments among officers. To be wanted. To be accepted. To be respected. To be missed.
My mom passed away over 15 years ago, and I have never returned to the cemetery where her body is buried. I know the spirit who made her the wonderful person she was is not trapped in the mausoleum. Conversely, I return to the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial in Washington D.C. every chance I get to rest my hands over the granite walls and engraved names of my brothers who are heroes not because they died, but because of the way they lived.
It is through the mourning of death that cops celebrate the charity of life in a profession often plagued by violence and loss. Maybe we attend to mourn the officer. Maybe we attend to mourn for ourselves, or maybe we attend to mourn for a lost society. Whichever the reason for attending, ceremonial police funerals are good for the profession.
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Why are police funerals good for the profession?