Serving the United States of America is among the noblest and most honorable career paths available in this country. To put one’s life on the line to defend our nation’s freedom is worthy of the highest praise, both in service and after death. On Memorial Day, we take this opportunity to celebrate these brave heroes who have fought for our freedom and for those that have lost their lives.
In honor of this selfless commitment made by our service members, a proper burial is the most fitting and respectful tribute to those that are no longer with us. Available to those who have died in the line of duty as well as to eligible veterans who passed away after completing their service, military funerals are a right that all service members receive.
Laws and Practices of Military Burials
Under United States law, all of our eligible veterans are entitled to a military service free of charge. Consisting of an honor guard of no less than two service members, this is to thank the veteran for their service while laying them to rest in the most respectful way possible.
All veterans are entitled to a military burial, which includes an honor guard who will fold and present the veteran’s family with our flag and the playing of Taps. Certain additional honors, like a color guard, a gun salute, and casket bearers may also be available, depending on the deceased’s level of service at the time of death. All arrangements must be requested through a funeral home at least 48 hours in advance to ensure that the proper arrangements are made in time for the ceremony. This ceremonial process is among the most significant aspects of a burial for our service members, and a highly desired and deserved experience for the families dealing with their recent loss.
Military Burial Eligibility
Military burial eligibility depends on several key factors related to the service member’s participation in the armed forces. All servicemen and women who served on active duty or in the Selected Reserve are eligible to receive military burial benefits. In order to be considered an eligible veteran who served on active duty, a service member must have successfully completed a tour of duty, and departed under conditions other than dishonorable. The same is true of Selected Reserve members; those who finished their minimum required period of service and departed under conditions other than dishonorable may receive a military burial. A DD Form 214 is required to establish eligibility. If this form is not available, any other documentation representative of honorable discharge is an acceptable substitution. Click Here For DD Form 214 is available online through the National Archives. Click Here for Flag Application. Click Here For Cemetery Marker Application.
Burial Service Variations
While all military service completed honorably is worthy of the highest possible praise, there are different forms of burial services depending on the duration and the type of service.
Veteran honors are available to anyone who served in the military but did not retire, which includes soldiers across the different branches, and those who were drafted to serve in past times of war. These services include the presentation of our flag by an honor guard and the playing of Taps.
Retiree honors are available for those who served for twenty years or more and retired from service, as well as those who were forced to retire due to health or disability reasons. These services are more involved than veteran honors and include a seven to ten person honor guard team including a chaplain, firing parties, pall bearers, the folding and presentation of our flag, and the playing of Taps.
Full honors are provided for those who passed away during active duty, Medal of Honor recipients, and General Officers. This is the most intricate of all burial honors, and includes a full honor guard of 21 service members, including a chaplain, firing squad, and pall bearers, as well as the folding and presentation of our flag and the playing of Taps.
While there are notable differences in each burial honor, all options are touching tributes, a final farewell for the members and former members of the armed forces as a thank you for the demands and sacrifices required of their military service.
The Military Burial Proceedings
Military burial proceedings are extremely sentimental, providing a thoughtful goodbye for all of our departed service members.
Burial proceedings take place at the cemetery, after the conclusion of a funeral mass or wake, and begin with the arrival of the casket or urn as transported by the funeral home. If a chaplain is present, he will lead the way to the proper plot, where the pall bearers will place the casket or urn on the ground appropriately.
Once at the gravesite, the officer in charge ensures that the flag is level over the casket or urn, and the family takes their seats, or may stand in a semi-circle. When the flag is positioned properly, the chaplain or other officiant will begin the ceremony.
When the service is complete, family members will rise if not already standing, and the officer in charge will give the command to initiate the rifle volley. Taps will play, and the rifle volley will follow. Then the folding of our flag will begin. Once the flag folding is complete, the flag will be passed to the officer in charge, who will present it to the next of kin, generally a spouse, parent, or child. The chaplain will remain to offer his condolences, and the ceremony will conclude.
The Folding of our Flag
The folding of our flag is among the most important parts of a military burial honor. As defenders of this country, the flag of the United States of America holds great symbolism for our armed forces members and their families, so the proper treatment is paramount. The flag should not touch the ground or be otherwise treated with disrespect under any circumstances, by both military members and civilians.
The folding process begins with four service members holding our flag horizontally and level at waist height, and two members holding the top and bottom edges. First, the bottom edge of the stripe section is folded lengthwise over the field of stars, corner to corner, with all borders and corners matching up neatly. This action is repeated again, creating a narrow rectangular shape with the field of stars visible at the top. Throughout this process, the flag should remain parallel to the ground.
While the other members hold the flag taut, the member at the foot of the flag will begin to make triangular folds, starting at the left corner. The newly created corner is then folded in a triangular shape to the right, and then to the left once more, and so on, until nearly the entire flag is folded. Folds should be made slowly and deliberately, to ensure clean lines and neat edges, and edges and corners should be pinched throughout the folding process to create the tightest possible fold.
When the end of the flag is reached, the member holding the top corner of the field of stars should create a small 45 degree fold, and tuck the remaining fabric into the pocket created by the triangular folds. Only the blue field and white stars should be visible; all of the red stripes should be hidden within the folds. Once the flag is neatly prepared, it will be presented to the next of kin.
When the funeral service is complete, the family may do with the flag as they wish, including flying it, or preserving it in a memorial case. Memorial cases can be made at home, or purchased through a specialty vendor. There is nothing wrong with using and flying the military funeral flag, provided the family is comfortable with doing so, and it does not have to remain folded after the completion of the ceremony.
Whether you plan to celebrate Memorial Day with your loved ones or will be participating in a special tribute to those that you have lost, take a moment to truly reflect on what this day means in the hearts of all Americans. Honoring death is never easy, but for those who served, your respect and devotion to them on this special day is greatly appreciated. The heroes of our armed forces are why we have our freedom, so raise a glass, and be sure to say thank you to the men and women in your life who have made the ultimate commitment and sacrificed their life for our great country.