These U.S. Military Funeral Traditions Honor the Fallen on Land, Air, and Sea
May 25, 2022by Jon Guttman
Growing numbers of Vietnam veterans are being laid to rest in recent years, and in many cases their families are attending military funerals. Every eligible veteran can receive military funeral honors.
Among military burial traditions, the 21-gun salute is the oldest. In the 14th century, warships and shore forces fired off their guns to show that their weapons were empty and they were friendly.
Also of artillery origin, dating at least to the 18th century, is the custom of carrying a head of state or high-ranking military official on a two-wheeled horse-drawn caisson.
Taps (referring to a soft triple beat on the drum) was composed by Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield in 1862 as a quieter substitute for gunfire to signal the end of the day’s activities—and later adopted to a soldier’s final rest.
A 20th century tradition among Air Force personnel is the “Missing Man’” formation, in which a “finger four” flight of warplanes approaches the burial site from the south and the second element’s leader breaks formation to climb westward, into the sunset. The Royal Air Force used a flyover at the funeral of British King George V in 1936, and the U.S. Army Air Corps used a similar flyover at the funeral of Maj. Gen. Oscar Westover in 1938. The flyover became standard after the April 1954 funeral of Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg.
A universal honor in American military funerals is the presentation of the flag that draped the coffin before burial. It is folded 13 times (for the 13 original states in 1776) into a triangular shape and given to the nearest kin.
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