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Military Funeral Service Rituals

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Questions and answers about what to expect at a military funeral

One of the most revered traditions of military life, a military funeral honors ceremony is a key part of how many families honor their lost veteran. But like all formal ceremonies, they can be a little intimidating if you don’t know what to expect. Read on to learn what happens at a military funeral and find answers to questions on how to behave, what to bring, and how to best help a family say goodbye to their veteran with dignity and respect.

Military Funeral Honor Service: What Is It?

It’s a tradition so important they wrote it into law. The Department of Defense is legally required, upon family request, to give every eligible Veteran a free military funeral honors ceremony. This ceremony, which occurs graveside or wherever the veteran is going to rest, includes:

  • • Folding and presenting the United States burial flag
  • • The playing of Taps
  • • A military funeral honors detail with two or more uniformed military persons, one of whom is a member of the Veteran's parent service of the armed forces.

There are some other traditional remembrances that might be included, such as a rifle salute or a horse-drawn carriage. Learn more about the meaning behind these traditions here.

A typical military funeral honors service unfolds like this:

Burial Flag

Typically, a ceremonial US flag is draped on the casket before leaving the funeral home, with the stars arranged over the veteran’s left shoulder.

Formal Arrival

Usually, the veteran arrives at the cemetery in hearse, but sometimes a horse-drawn carriage, or caisson, carries the casket. When the caisson arrives, you may notice that the horses on the right do not have riders. This is because their traditional role was to carry provisions. Sometimes, if the veteran was an high-ranking officer, a riderless horse follows the carriage, in remembrance of the passed veteran.

Honor Guard

The veteran’s casket is typically carried to the gravesite with ceremony by a military honor guard. If more than two honor guards are not available, family members or friends may be asked to assist with carrying the casket.

Committal Service

The family can choose whoever they would like to lead the graveside service, such as a member of the clergy, military chaplain, or a close friend. The content of this part of the ceremony is up to the family or the leader providing the service, and is often the kind of personal tributes you’d expect to hear at a funeral.

Honors Ceremony

Following the committal service, the traditional elements of military funeral honors begin:

Preparation of the Flag
The honor guard lifts and holds the American flag taut over the casket.

Rifle salute
If the family has opted for a gun salute, a rifle party consisting of an odd number of  service members will fire blank cartridges into the air. Don’t be surprised to only hear  three rounds of shots. The 21 Gun Salute many expect utilizes artillery pieces and is reserved for the President of the United States. The current three volleys comes from a ceasefire military tradition that indicates all the dead on the battlefield are cared for. A spent shell may be picked up and later tucked into the folded memorial flag.

Taps is played
Composed during the Civil War as a “lights out” signal, Taps ushers thousands of American veterans to their rest each year. This may be done by live, but often the bugler is playing a recording on a ceremonial instrument. This is due to an increasing lack of trained musicians in the Armed Forces and to improve sound quality in poor weather.

Folding and presentation of the flag
Once Taps is complete, the honor guard ceremonially folds the American flag and presents it to the family to keep.

After the family receives the flag, the military funeral honors ceremony is typically complete. Often, a chaplain, funeral home director, or cemetery representative will announce any further services, such as a reception or additional dedications.

How to Behave

Like all time-honored traditions, the military funeral honors ceremony has some customs and expectations guest should know. Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions:

Should I Salute and When?

If you’re in the military or a veteran, you should salute:

  • • When the hearse passes in front of you
  • • At any time while the casket is being moved including when it is being lowered into the ground
  • • During the gun salute
  • • While Taps is being played

If you’re not in the military or a veteran, you’re not required to salute. In fact, you may want to avoid it: saluting at the wrong time is considered a major breach of etiquette, so often civilians at a military funeral will simply hold a hat or hand over their heart when a salute is appropriate.

What Should I Wear?

Military service members and veterans are encouraged to wear a full-dress uniform. Civilians should wear something appropriate for a formal religious occasion: casual clothes are not welcome at this kind of service. Keep in mind that the military funeral honors ceremony tends to run a little longer than a typical graveside service. You may be standing for most of it, so plan your shoes carefully.

Can I Bring Children?

There are no rules about whether or not children can attend a military funeral, but these ceremonies can be lengthy with limited seating and require a lot of attention to the service leader. Usually, parents decide to leave their children with a caregiver, but the funeral home director can give you guidance on what’s appropriate.

Should I Turn Off My Phone?

Of course! Notifications and ringtones are considered highly disrespectful during this solemn event, and you should silence ALL devices during the ceremony. Do not record the service or take photos until the ceremony is complete and the family has received the burial flag.

There are Chairs — Where Should I Sit?

Most graveside chairs at a military funeral are meant for the immediate family and should be saved for them. If in doubt, check with the funeral director.

Can I Bring Flowers?

Flowers are often a welcome tribute, but flower-friendly weather conditions at a military funeral honors ceremony are never a guarantee. Cemeteries all have different rules regarding graveside floral arrangements, and the family likely has something specific planned. If you’d like to send flowers, it’s best to have them sent to the funeral home before the service.

LEARN MORE

What to Do When a Veteran Dies: Handling the details of a military death can be confusing. We’re here to help with this guide on first steps and important things to know.

The Meaning Behind Military Funerals: Learn more about the events in these time-honored traditions.

Burial Benefits: Find out how the VA can help you say goodbye to your veteran.

Grief Support: You are not alone. Connect with other grieving partners of veterans here.