07 Sep Final Salute with Military Funeral Honors
The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for military funeral honors. However, military downsizing during the late 80’s and 90’s resulted in difficulty in providing funeral honors. Consequently, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion were called upon to assist the DOD in their responsibilities, volunteering the operation of funeral honors for fallen veterans when the DOD could not.
Congress deemed this unsatisfactory in 1999 and enacted a law requiring the military services to provide funeral honors for eligible veterans (“Eligibility for Military Burial”).
If requested, the DOD is obligated to provide an honor guard comprised of at least two military members to conduct funeral honors for eligible veterans. At the very minimum, the honor company is required to perform a ceremony including the folding and presenting of the American flag to the next of kin and the playing of taps.
Meeting Military Honor Guards
Members of the honor guard are skilled in military drill and ceremonies. If requested, they can perform memorial honors at funerals of eligible veterans. Most military installations have an honor guard team. In most cases, military funeral honors are executed by individual honor guard teams stationed at many military bases.
Despite the military paying for their honor guard uniforms, equipment, and transportation expenses, military honor guards are generally volunteers that practice, drill, and perform at funerals while maintaining other full-time military jobs.
A minimum of two honor guards to perform at a veteran’s funeral is mandatory by law, but in most cases, the funeral company is comprised of four to seven members, contingent on the abilities of the local honor guard unit, accessible resources, and manpower. Other veterans’ services taking place in the same vicinity on the same day can also affect the honor guard availability.
Knowing What Honors are Provided
The DOD is obligated by law to play taps, fold the U.S. flag, and present the flag to the next of kin. Additional honors including honor guard pallbearers and a rifle volley may be available contingent on the resources accessible by the honor guard company and wishes of the family. Additional honors may include:
- Taps: Taps is a traditional bugle call sounded at military funerals by an official bugler if available or by electronic means. The honor guard presents a final salute to the deceased veteran during the playing of taps.
- Flag Folding: The U.S. flag is carefully taken from the casket and silently folded by the honor guard company. Once folded, the flag resembles a triangle, representative of the three-cornered hats worn by colonial soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The method used during the folding of the flag requires 13 folds that represent the original colonies and once the flag is completely folded no stripes are visible, leaving only the blue and stars.
- Flag Presentation: After the flag is folded it is presented to an honor guard member in the same military branch as the deceased veteran who subsequently marches the flag to the next of kin and presents the flag to them. During the member’s presentation to the next of kin, they say, “As a representative of the United States Army (Air Force/Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard), it is my high privilege to present you this flag. Let it be a symbol of the grateful appreciation this nation feels for the distinguished service rendered to our country and our flag by your loved one.”
Provided there is no next of kin, the flag is presented to a friend of the deceased.
- Pallbearers: If available, family members can request that members of the honor guard function as pallbearers and provide other funeral honors.
- Rifle Volley: A rifle volley is a customary tradition in which three volleys of shots are fired in honor of the deceased veteran by members of the honor guard company. Rifle volleys are performed only if the family chooses.
Rifle volleys are fired from rifles and not guns, so they are not gun salutes. Seven or eight members comprise the firing team where each member fires three times.
The three volleys originate from a custom in which battle would temporarily stop for service members to clear their dead from the battlegrounds. When a side had successfully removed their dead, they fired three rifle volleys to signify the continuation of battle.
When the honor guard is finished with the volley, they generally fold three shell-casings into the flag before presenting it to the family.