A Final Salute: Know The Symbolism Behind Military Funerals

Military life and ceremonies are steeped in tradition and symbolism, and funerals are no exception. Although one of the more somber traditions for military members, understanding the symbolism behind different aspects of a funeral with military honors highlight the amount of pure respect the community has for their fallen members.

Take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of a military funeral.

Military Funeral

Learn more about the history of many military funeral traditions.

Military Honors

Military honors at a funeral are available for military members who died while on active duty service or in the Selected Reserve. Additionally, honorably discharged veterans who served on active duty or in the Selected Reserve as well as former military members who completed at least one term of enlistment or term of obligated service in the Reserves are eligible. More information about funeral honors eligibility can be found through the Department of Defense.

Transfer

Depending on the location and terms of the funeral, there are often certain traditions about the transfer of the body to the place of interment. The casket is always covered with the flag with the stars over the left shoulder, according to patriotic tradition started during the Napoleonic wars.

With full military honors or the funeral of a president the casket is often carried by a horse drawn caisson. The horses on the left will have riders while the horses on the left are only saddled, stemming from the days when the horses on the right were typically carrying ammunition. In the case of an Army or Marine Corps office above the colonel grade, the caisson is followed by a horse with no rider symbolizing how the fallen will never ride again.

Military Funeral

Example of an honor guard preparing to fire three volleys.

21-Gun Salute

One of the the best-known military tradition is the 21-gun salute, but few know the meaning behind it and the traditions that sparked it. A long-standing military tradition was to honor the dead by showing their weapons were no longer hostile. Whereas naval fleets traditionally discharge seven rounds in commemoration, their on-land counterparts were able to shoot three times as many for a total of 21.

However, at most military funerals what many mistake for a 21-gun salute is actually an honor guard team firing three volleys from rifles. This tradition comes from traditional battle ceasefires where each side would clear the dead. The firing of three volleys indicated the dead were cleared and properly cared for.

Taps Military Funeral

Bugler playing taps during a competition at Fort Myer.

Playing of Taps

A variation of an earlier bugle call, taps was composed by General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army during The Civil War. Originally composed to signal “lights out,” the somber tune became a traditional way to honor servicemembers, eventually becoming a staple at funeral services to honor the extinguishing of a life.

 

Flag folding military funeral Levi Newman

Levi from the Veterans United Network folding the flag according to protocol.

Closing and Flag Protocol

At the end of the service, the flag is removed from the casket and carefully folded by the honor guard. Each fold represents something different and at the end only the stars are left showing on the top. Once the flag has been properly folded, a few of the shells may be inserted into the back fold before it is presented to the next of kin with an expression of gratitude for the sacrifice they have made.

Understanding the deep meaning behind the different aspects of a military funeral will help anyone get in touch with the rich history that influences military tradition today.

What other military funeral symbols do you know of?

Images courtesy of Derek Hartley, Beverly and Pack, The National Guard & Elvert Barnes