The pipes, the silence, and the funeral of Chicago Police Officer Ella French

By John Kass

What is it about the sound of bagpipes at the funeral of a police officer killed in the line of duty?

The pipes are a great and proud tradition in Chicago. The sound is martial, defiant, and strong. Sometimes the pipes stop abruptly. Sometimes they fade away, like a scream from lungs without air.

Or is that scream an internal sound only in the minds of the family and other loved ones, when the silence is about to begin?

The pipes played for Chicago Police Officer Ella French, with thousands of uniformed officers inside and outside the church on a hot day. And as the pipes played, many police must have been thinking about the night French was killed, and all the times they, themselves, have stopped a car at night, wondering, “Why her and not me?”

She was 29, with just three years on the job, still learning, when she was shot to death on Aug. 7, during a police traffic stop in the West Englewood neighborhood. Her partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., was shot twice in the head and once in the shoulder and remains in the hospital.

And at her funeral, as at all the others, after the pipers were done piping, the silence began with another sound: the closing of a car door leaving the cemetery.

“It’s the worst,” said a friend, Patrick Fitzmaurice, a retired Chicago Fire Department Paramedic. “That silence is horrible. It’s fade to black. That’s all I keep thinking at these times. Fade to black. And what happens to the family when the silence comes.”

You might pray for her soul and for her family, for her mother, Elizabeth, for her brother Andrew, and that larger family of hers in blue, her brothers and sisters of the Chicago Police Department. They’re family, now, and they’re in mourning too.

I suppose I really don’t have to ask you to pray for her. My guess is you’ve already said a prayer and you’ll say more, lighting a candle at church, asking God for mercy for her soul and for a troubled city. You might whisper it when your head hits the pillow at night. Or, maybe a silent prayer to yourself in the morning, and if your children ask you “What’s wrong?” you just shake your head and tell them that nothing’s wrong and hug them a bit tighter.

That’s what thousands of Chicago police families must be going through right now.

That silence is crushing. You can feel the weight of it. You can even hear it. You may have heard it yourself, after the funerals of your own loved ones, when the condolence visits finally stop.

Friends and family bring their casseroles and their coffee cakes and their hugs. There is always the sound of hushed talking and the clinking of dishes and coffee cups in the sink as they’re being washed, as others of them come up the walk and knock on the door to pay their respects.

Some find their way out into the backyard with the smokers and drink whiskey, and tell stories about the deceased, what they loved, what they didn’t, and the crazy, funny things they did when alive. Others are on the sofa in the front room, balancing coffee cups and saucers on their knees, telling other stories.

It’s all about love trying to push that silence away.

Then the last car leaves the driveway. There’s that click of the lock on the front door. You’re alone. And the silence is right there.

Politicians always feel a need to fill any silence. Most can’t help themselves. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, loathed by the police, didn’t say a word.

That was new. Mayors always try to say something. But she didn’t, respecting the wishes of the family that did not want her to speak. She was mindful of all those cops who loathe her for her anti-police rhetoric over the years, and who turned their backs on her at the hospital.

It must have been tough on Lightfoot, but she showed up. She sat next to former Mayor Richard M. Daley in silence, and for that, thousands of Chicago Police officers and their families must have been grateful.

What did we learn about Officer Ella French?

We learned from one of Ella French’s partners that she loved making banana bread for them, how she loved dogs. We learned she was kind and concerned about the people in the communities she served. We learned she treated those on the other side of the badge with respect. We learned that she loved life.

Her mother, Elizabeth French offered a strong and beautiful eulogy, beginning with, “I have two children. And today I’m here with half my heart.”

She told a story about the day she adopted Ella and wrote it out in a letter when her daughter was young.  “Dear Ella,” she read from her letter, “let me tell you the story of when you were born to me.”

She told all law enforcement officers that her daughter was proud to be a member of the police family. She thanked them for their service. And she closed with the words she told her daughter before every shift:

“Be careful and safe.”

We also learned about the light in Ella, when her godfather spoke about how she laid down life in service to others. The godfather mentioned the words of Jesus in the Bible. And then he continued:

“We are sobered whenever we see sacrifice on a battlefield, or in a blazing building or a street corner in Chicago,” he said. “The darker our culture gets, the further from the light of love and the light of God, the more these incidents of sacrifice stand out like beams of light from eternity.”

Like a candle in the dark.

There will be time enough in coming days to talk of political spin and the calculations of political cowards, and all the finger-pointing in a city unmoored. But not now. Not today.

All that is drowned out in the light shining from her, as she gave her life to her city and her brothers and sisters in blue.

There are other things to consider now, like the silence that comes after the pipes, and of all those good men and women who love Ella French and her family, and who will watch over them.

Because that’s what family is about: The people who show up to check on you when the silence begins.

(Copyright 2021 John Kass)

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