Honoring Their Own
May 2011: U.S. Navy, United States Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard personnel unfurl an American flag on the flight deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum at a Memorial Day ceremony during Fleet Week New York. Fleet Week has been New York City’s celebration of the sea services since 1984 and is an opportunity for citizens of New York and the surrounding area to meet Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen and see firsthand the capabilities of today’s maritime services.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew R. White.
The Heritage of the Military Funeral and Burial at Sea
Honoring the deceased is a centuries-old practice that includes many traditions across cultures. The customs and traditions behind military funerals and burial at sea date as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. In the Navy’s culture, as the final honor to give to shipmates, traditions are employed that not only signify the service of the deceased, but also display our nation’s commitment to their legacy.
Atlantic Ocean, December 6, 2014.
Capt. John Carter, commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) salutes during a burial-at-sea. Bataan is conducting an underway evolution in preparation for an upcoming planned maintenance availability.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julie Matyascik
Reversal of Rank
In Royal Connell and William Mack’s “Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions,”it is noted that the reversal of rank at military funerals is modeled after an ancient Roman custom of “reversing all rank and position when celebrating the feast of Saturn,”showing that, at death, all are equal. This is signified by positioning the honorary pallbearers and all other mourners, if practicable, in reverse order of rank.
Firing Three Volleys
The custom of firing three volleys at funerals comes from an old superstition. It was once thought that evil spirits escape from the hearts of the deceased, so shots are fired to drive away those evil spirits. “The number three has long had a mystical significance,”write Connell and Mack. They note that in Roman funeral rites, earth was cast three times into a grave, mourners called the dead three times by name, and the Latin word vale, meaning “farewell,”was spoken three times as they left the tomb. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also notes that the firing of three volleys “can be traced to the European dynastic wars when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded.”The funeral volley should not be mistaken for the twenty-one gun salute which is fired for the U.S. President, other heads of state, Washington’s birthday, and the Fourth of July. At Navy military funerals today, three volleys are fired by a firing detail of seven riflemen during the funeral of active duty personnel, Medal of Honor recipients, and retirees just before the sounding of taps.
Pacific Ocean, August 19, 2007.
US Navy flag bearers bow their heads in prayer during a burial at sea ceremony aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Lincoln conducted the solemn and sacred tradition of burial at sea for 11 former service members during her transit home to Everett, Washington. Lincoln completed carrier qualifications, Tailored Ship’s Training Availability and Final Evaluation Problem during a scheduled work-up off the coast of Southern California.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class James R. Evans.
The sounding of taps is perhaps one of the most moving and well known elements of military funerals. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, taps originated from the French final call, “L’Extinction des feux,”to extinguish the lights. This “lights out”bugle call was used by the U.S. Army infantry during the Civil War, but in 1862 Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield suggested a revision of the French tune, and we now have the 24-note bugle call we hear today. Taps was first played at a military funeral in Virginia when Union Capt. John Tidball ordered it to be played as a substitute to the traditional three rifle volleys so as not to reveal the battery’s position to the nearby enemy. At Navy military funerals today, taps is played by a military bugler after the firing of three volleys and just before the flag is folded.
The National Ensign
The National Ensign plays a very special role in today’s military funeral traditions. The custom of placing a flag over the body of a fallen soldier has been recorded in the days before the American Revolution when a private in the British Guards by the name of Stephen Graham wrote that the Union Jack was laid upon the body of a fallen soldier who died in the service of the State to show that the State “takes the responsibility of what it ordered him to do as a solider.”Today, this custom is practiced in American military funerals as a way to honor the service of the deceased veteran. The National Ensign is draped over the casket so the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. After Taps is sounded, the body bearers fold the flag 13 times—representing the 13 original colonies—into a triangle, emblematic of the tri-cornered hat word by the Patriots of the American Revolution. When folded, only the blue field with stars should be visible. The flag is then presented to the next of kin or other appropriate family member.
Arabian Sea, April 9, 2011.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) prepare to cast ashes overboard during a burial at sea.
Enterprise and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 are conducting close-air support missions in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jesse L. Gonzalez.
Burial at Sea
Another type of ceremony for honoring the deceased is the burial at sea (also called the “at sea disposition”) performed on a U.S. Navy vessel. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the tradition of burial at sea is one that dates back to ancient times and has been a practice for as long as people have gone to sea. The body was sewn into a weighted sailcloth and in very old custom, the last stitch was taken through the nose of the deceased. The body was then sent over the side, usually with an appropriate religious ceremony.
During World War II, many burials at sea took place when naval forces operated at sea for months at a time. Today, active duty service members, honorably discharged retirees, veterans, U.S. civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command, and dependent family members of active duty, retirees, and veterans are eligible for at sea disposition.
The ceremony for burial at sea is conducted in a similar manner to that of shore funerals, with three volleys fired, the sounding of taps, and the closing of colors. The casket or urn is slid overboard into the sea after the committal is read, or, if requested, the cremated remains are scattered into the sea. Flowers or wreaths are also allowed to slide overboard or tossed into the sea by a flag bearer.
Because the committal ceremony is performed while a ship is deployed, family members are not permitted to attend burials at sea. So, within 10 days after committal, the commanding officer of the ship will mail a letter giving the date and time of committal and include any photographs or video of the ceremony, the commemorative flag, and a chart showing where the burial took place.
For many centuries, funerals have been a way to give our final respects to our loved ones. The customs and traditions that we share during the ceremony make it all the more meaningful.
World War II Unknown Serviceman
Ceremonies for the selection of the World War II Unknown Serviceman were conducted on board USS Canberra (CAG 2) on May 26, 1958. Medal of Honor recipient Hospitalman William R. Charette, selected the Unknown Serviceman. After the ceremonies, the WWII Unknown Serviceman was transported for interment at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, which fell on May 31.
Private First Class Frank Calvin, USMC, places the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Private Calvin is himself the recipient of two Navy Crosses, the Purple Heart, and the Presidential Unit Citation, circa 1943.
Unknown Servicemen of World War II and the Korean War. Crewmen of USS Boston (CAG 1) render honors as the first casket is transferred to USS Canberra (CAG-2), prior to ceremonies on board Canberra to select the Unknown Serviceman of World War II. Two more caskets are still on board Boston, visible just aft of the starboard whaleboat davits. The ceremonies took place off the Virginia Capes on 26 May 1958. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.
Unknown Servicemen of World War II and the Korean War. Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, who received the Medal of Honor for Korean War heroism, selects the Unknown Serviceman of World War II, during ceremonies on board USS Canberra (CAG-2) off the Virginia Capes on 26 May 1958. The other World War II Unknown Serviceman candidate’s casket is at left, with the Unknown Serviceman of the Korean War in the middle. The other Unknown Serviceman from WWII not chose was given a solemn burial at sea. After completion of the selection ceremonies, the World War II and Korean War Unknown Servicemen were carried to Washington, D.C., for burial at Arlington Cemetery. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.
Note: At that time, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette was the Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient.
Above photo: An Army member of the joint services casket team carries the folded U.S. flag from the casket of the Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Era to President Ronald Reagan, left, during the interment ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Photographed by Mickey Sanborn, 28 May 1984.
The Unknown service member from the Vietnam War was designated by Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984. The Vietnam Unknown was transported aboard the USS Brewton to Alameda Naval Base, Calif. The remains were sent to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., May 24. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., the next day.
Many Vietnam veterans and President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan visited the Vietnam Unknown in the U.S. Capitol. An Army caisson carried the Vietnam Unknown from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984. President Reagan presided over the funeral, and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower poses with three men to whom he has just presented the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in Korean War combat action, at the White House, Washington, D.C., 12 January 1954. Those who received the medal are (from left to right): First Lieutenant Edward R. Schowalter, Jr., U.S. Army, honored for his actions near Kumhwa, Korea, on 14 October 1952; Private First Class Ernest E. West, U.S. Army, honored for his actions near Sataeri, Korea, on 12 October 1952; and Hospital Corpsman Third Class William R. Charette, U.S. Navy, honored for his actions in Korea on 17 March 1953. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.
1973, the first U.S. manned orbiting space station, Skylab 2, was launched with an all US Navy crew. Commanding was Capt. Charles Conrad, Jr., with Cmdr. Paul J. Weitz, as the pilot, and Cmdr. Joseph P. Kerwin as the science pilot. Recovery was by USS Ticonderoga (CVS 14)…
Skylab 2 Astronauts pictured in-front of a Skylab 2 model. Left to right: Cmdr. Joseph P. Kerwin, USN; Capt. Charles Conrad, Jr., USN; and Cmdr. Paul J. Weitz, USN. NASA Photograph.
USS Ticonderoga (CVS 14). With her rails manned, circa 1970-72, following conversion to an anti-submarine warfare support aircraft carrier. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.
These three men are the crewmen for the first manned Skylab mission. They are Charles Conrad Jr., commander, standing left; scientist-astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin, seated; and Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, pilot. They were photographed and interviewed during an “open house” press day in the realistic atmosphere of the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) trainer in the Mission Simulation and Training Facility at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC). The control and display panel for the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) is at right. NASA Photograph Collection.
Heroes and Warriors, all of them!
On the Web: Request Military Funeral Honors
For information on requesting military funeral honors, visit https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/mfh.
For detailed information and protocol for Navy military funerals, see Bureau of Naval Personnel instruction NAVPERS 15555D. For information on burial at sea, contact the U.S. Navy Mortuary Affairs Burial At Sea Program.