Moving Moments that Honor Vets in a Military Funeral

On Veteran’s Day, the country honors all veterans for their service. It’s a public holiday, formerly Armistice Day, held on the anniversary of the end of World War I to honor American veterans of all wars. It differs from Memorial Day which recognizes those who died while serving the country.

A military funeral is one of the benefits the government provides in gratitude for a veteran’s service.

The free, half-hour service can be arranged at more than 100 national cemeteries around the country. Families can also choose to have a private ceremony where some customs, like the playing of “Taps” or a flag presentation, may take place. Non-profit organizations also sometimes help with these ceremonies and honor special requests, like flyovers.

Though the service is relatively short, it is rich with long-standing traditions and customs. You can find out more about funeral etiquette here.

Military funeral honors generally include:

    • The playing of “Taps”
    • A rifle detail
    • Uniformed service members who present the flag

In addition to the traditional military funeral, families can also request a flyover or burial at sea with the Navy or Coast Guard.

Military rituals hold deep symbolism and history. We explore some of the common elements of a military funeral here.


“Taps,” also known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby,” “Extinguish Lights,” and most recently, “The National Song of Remembrance,” evolved from a “lights out” bugle call but became a standard component of military funerals in 1891.

There are varying accounts of the authorship of the song, but historians believe earlier bugle calls were revised into what we now know as the familiar 24-note tune which recently marked 150 years. There are no official lyrics, though several popular versions are often sung.

​​Day is done, Gone the sun,

From the lake, From the hill,

From the sky.

All is well, Safely rest,

God is nigh.

Gun Salutes

The three-volley salute is common at military funerals and can be traced back to the European dynastic wars. When fighting stopped to clear the dead and wounded, three rounds were fired into the air to signal that fighting could begin again.

The 21-gun salute is only used for special occasions and people. According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, the 21-gun salute is fired to honor the president, ex-presidents and the president-elect of the United States as well as those representing foreign nations (royal family, chief of state or sovereign). It also is fired “at noon on George Washington’s birthday, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the day of the funeral of a president, ex-president or president-elect.”

Flag presentation and flag folding

After “Taps” is played, the flag is carefully folded 13 times representing the original 13 colonies and its triangular shape symbolizes the tricorn hat worn by patriots in the American Revolution. When an urn is used, the flag is already in a military fold, explains the MilitaryOneSource website.

The flag is presented to the next of kin or a close friend with these words of thanks:

On behalf of the President of the United States, (the United States Army; the United States Marine Corps; the United States Navy; the United States Air Force or the United States Coast Guard), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved ones honorable and faithful service.”

A specific protocol outlines how the flag is folded (as demonstrated in this military flag folding video), held and presented (the folded flag is held waist high with the straight edge facing the recipient).

You can find more information about burial flags on the Veterans Affairs website.

Assistance from volunteer groups

For families who may want a little more fanfare or assistance than a military cemetery can provide, volunteer groups work to fill the gap.

Taps for Veterans works to connect families with musicians so that they may have a live bugler at their ceremony instead of a recording. Taps for Veterans is run by former military musicians who care deeply about the “National Song of Remembrance.”

The Patriot Guard Riders is a nonprofit group that attends veterans funerals, usually arriving on motorcycles, in support of the deceased and family. For Washington State Captain, Neal “Stretch” Miller, the most emotional moment is “seeing all the U.S. flags on display for our hero and the guests.” He tells Solace, “Having a group of strangers all holding flags for someone they didn’t know is a powerful and emotional moment.”

Miller explains, “We consider it an absolute privilege to be invited by the family to pay a final tribute to our national heroes. Our veterans and first responders deserve to be honored for their service to our nation and community, their families and friends deserve to see and feel that respect as well. On rare occasions, we are the family for that hero who has none, and they deserve to be remembered and honored, too.

You can learn more about burial benefits and memorial items on the Veterans Affairs website. You can also locate a national cemetery and find out more information about how to plan a funeral for a veteran on the National Cemetery Administration site.

Photo by Chad Madden

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