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Military Funeral Honors

Customs and Traditions


A riderless horse follows the caisson bearing former President Ronald Reagan's flag-draped casket during his funeral procession. A pair of his boots are reversed in the stirrups of the empty saddle symbolizing that he will never ride again.
Expert Infantry/Flickr
As with the military itself, our armed forces' final farewell to comrades is steeped in tradition and ceremony.

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 in 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.

One will notice, during a military funeral that the horses that pull the caisson which 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 cannon, and 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 president, by virtue of having been the nation's military commander in chief.

The custom is believed to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed to serve the fallen warrior in the next world. The caparisoned horse later came to symbolize a warrior who would ride no more. Abraham Lincoln, who was killed in 1865, was the first U.S. president to be honored with a caparisoned horse at his funeral.

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 honors 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 traces its roots to the Anglo-Saxon empire, 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 one that could be fired by a ship at sea.

Later, as gunpowder and storage methods improved, salutes at sea also began using 21 guns. The United States at first used one round for each state, attaining the 21-gun salute by 1818. The nation reduced its salute to 21 guns in 1841, and formally adopted the 21-gun salute at the suggestion of the British in 1875.

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 -- unless this day falls on a Sunday or holiday, in which case the honor will rendered the following day -- the commanders of Army installations with the necessary personnel and material traditionally order that one gun be fired every half hour, beginning at reveille and ending at retreat.

On the day of burial, a 21-minute gun salute traditionally is fired starting at noon at all military installations with the necessary personnel and material. Guns will be fired at one-minute intervals. Also on the day of burial, those installations will fire a 50-gun salute -- one round for each state -- at five- second intervals immediately following 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 is the highest honor.

When played for a president, "Ruffles and Flourishes" is followed by "Hail to the Chief," which is believed to have been written in England in 1810 or 1811 by James Sanderson for a play by Sir Walter Scott called "The Lady of the Lake." The play began to be performed in the United States in 1812, the song became popular, and it became a favorite of bands at festive events. It evolved to be used as a greeting for important visitors, and eventually for the president, though no record exists of when it was first put to that use.

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