contributed by Sylvia Trein
A grateful nation recognizes its veterans and their service to our country with military burial honors. These may include a combination of tributes such as flag presentation, a three-volley rifle salute, a bugle rendition of “Taps,” and others. Many of these traditions are familiar to most Americans through personal experience or movies and TV, but as a spouse, child, or other family member of a veteran, you might be wondering about your loved one’s military funeral eligibility and access.
Here, we cover the basics to answer your most common questions around military funeral procedures, military funeral flag etiquette, VA burial benefits, how to schedule military honors at a funeral, and more.
All eligible veterans may access a burial with military honors. Eligible veterans include active duty and reserve personnel, retirees, and those who have been honorably discharged from any branch. Ineligible persons include those who have been dishonorably discharged, those who have been convicted of a state, federal, or capital crime, and any others whose conduct has resulted in disqualification.
Standard military honors are available to all service members, regardless of branch. These include a minimum two-person uniformed detail (sometimes called a casket team or honor guard) where at least one, but usually both come from the deceased veteran’s armed forces branch. You can also expect a military funeral flag presentation (more on that below). Either a bugler or a recording are provided to play “Taps.” Lastly, a standard military funeral service includes a firing party.
A full military honors funeral will include the above standard honors plus an escort platoon, a band, a color guard, and a caisson, which is an ammunition wagon to carry the casket. Service personnel who have died as a result of enemy action are eligible for a full military honors funeral, as are certain higher-ranking officers.
In all cases, a military chaplain may be requested to conduct the funeral service. Additionally, members of veterans’ organizations may stand in for service personnel.
Veterans may choose for their funeral and burial to take place at a national cemetery or a private one. If choosing a national cemetery, burial procedures are somewhat different in that an onsite viewing and graveside funeral are not allowed. Instead, there is a committal service, which takes place in a shelter prior to the burial. This service is short—about 20 minutes—and involves the military funeral honors described above.
Choosing a private cemetery allows for a viewing and graveside service, if desired. In either case, the VA provides a headstone, marker, or medallion, as well as a Presidential memorial certificate and a burial flag.
In funerals with a closed casket, the flag is draped over it, with the union (blue) over the head and shoulder side. With an open casket, the flag is folded thirteen times (to symbolize the thirteen colonies) into a triangle (to symbolize the Revolution patriots’ iconic tricorn hat) and placed over the left shoulder. In the case of an urn, the flag is also folded into a triangle, then unfolded and displayed at the pall.
During the presentation ceremony, there will be a rifle salute, “Taps” will be played, and the flag will be presented, properly folded, to the next of kin as a keepsake. For this keepsake, etiquette states that the flag must never touch the ground, must be displayed indoors, must never be used for purposes other than display, and must be protected from any damage.
The first step to planning a military funeral is to speak with a funeral home director, who can coordinate on your behalf. (If you would like to coordinate the service yourself, contact information is available by state and armed forces branch.) The veteran’s discharge papers are used to determine eligibility; if not in your possession, they can be requested by the deceased’s next of kin from the National Archives.
Note that military funeral honors are provided by the Department of Defense at no cost either to the family of the deceased or to the funeral coordinator/provider. When buried at a national cemetery, perpetual care of your loved one’s grave is provided. Families opting for a private cemetery rather than a national cemetery are reimbursed according to military funeral honors eligibility.
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