Military Funeral Customs and Traditions

Soldiers carrying a coffin covered with a flag during a military funeral.

Maj. Francisco G. Hamm / U.S. Air Force

As with the military itself, our armed forces' final farewell to comrades is steeped in tradition and ceremony. Many of these traditions stretch back centuries and are rich with symbolism.

The Flag

Prominent in a military funeral is the flag-draped casket. The blue field of the flag is placed at the head of the casket, over the left shoulder of the deceased. The custom began during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when a flag was used to cover the dead as they were taken from the battlefield on a caisson.

The Horses

During a military funeral, the horses that pull the caisson that bears the body of the veteran are all saddled, but the horses on the left have riders, while the horses on the right do not. This custom evolved from the days when horse-drawn caissons were the primary means of moving artillery ammunition and cannons while the riderless horses carried provisions.

The single riderless horse that follows the caisson with boots reversed in the stirrups is called the "caparisoned horse" in reference to its ornamental coverings, which have a detailed protocol all to themselves. By tradition in military funeral honors, a caparisoned horse follows the casket of an Army or Marine Corps officer who was a colonel or above, or the casket of a U.S. president, by virtue of having been the nation's military commander in chief. Abraham Lincoln, who was killed in 1865, was the first U.S. president to be honored with a caparisoned horse at his funeral.

The 21-Gun Salute

Graveside military honors include the firing of three volleys each by seven service members. This commonly is confused with an entirely separate honor, the 21-gun salute. But the number of individual gun firings in both ceremonies evolved the same way.

The three volleys came from an old battlefield custom. The two warring sides would cease hostilities to clear their dead from the battlefield, and the firing of three volleys meant that the dead had been properly cared for and the side was ready to resume the battle.

The 21-gun salute has its roots in British custom, when seven guns constituted a recognized naval salute, as most naval vessels had seven guns. Because gunpowder in those days could be more easily stored on land than at sea, guns on land could fire three rounds for every single round that could be fired by a ship at sea.

Later, as gunpowder and storage methods improved, salutes at sea also began using 21 guns. Initially, the U.S. used one round for each state, attaining the 21-gun salute by 1818. The nation reduced its salute to 21 guns in 1842, and formally adopted the 21-gun salute in 1890.

Service for a Deceased President

A U.S. presidential death also involves other ceremonial gun salutes and military traditions. On the day after the death of the president, a former president, or president-elect, the commanders of Army installations traditionally order that one gun be fired every half-hour, beginning at reveille and ending at a retreat.

On the day of burial, a 21-gun salute (with a shot each minute for 21 minutes) is traditionally fired starting at noon at all military installations with the necessary personnel and material. Those installations will also fire a 50-gun salute—one round for each state—at five-second intervals immediately following the lowering of the flag.

The playing of "Ruffles and Flourishes" announces the arrival of a flag officer or other dignitary of honor. Drums play the ruffles, and bugles play the flourishes—one flourish for each star of the flag officer's rank or as appropriate for the honoree's position or title. Four flourishes are the highest honor. When played for a president, "Ruffles and Flourishes" is followed by "Hail to the Chief."

The Playing of Taps

The bugle call "Taps" originated during the Civil War with the Army of the Potomac. Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield didn't like the bugle call that signaled soldiers in the camp to put out the lights and go to sleep, and worked out the melody of "Taps" with his brigade bugler, Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton. The call later came into another use as a figurative call to the sleep of death for soldiers.

The Missing Man Formation

Another military honor dates back only to the 20th century. The military flyover, or missing man formation, usually is a four-aircraft formation with the No. 3 aircraft either missing or performing a pull-up maneuver and leaving the formation to signify a lost comrade in arms. These are typically reserved for aviation officers, president, or other qualified personnel. 

The Funeral Order

While this can change slightly from service to service and is based on preferences of family members, the standard sequence of events for a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery is usually as follows:

The caisson or hearse arrives at the gravesite, and everyone presents arms. The casket team secures the casket, and the chaplain leads the way to the gravesite. The casket team sets down the casket and secures the flag. The flag is stretched out and level and centered over the casket. 

After the chaplain performs the service, and before the benediction, the gun salute is fired (when appropriate). The officer in charge presents arms to initiate the rifle volley, then the bugler plays "Taps." The flag is folded and presented to the next of kin. The only person remaining at the grave is one soldier, the vigil. His mission is to watch over the body until it is interred into the ground.