Seems weird writing a blog post about a funeral but then again this wasn’t just your average family funeral. This one had a bugler, a bagpiper, a full military band, horse drawn caisson, and the seven member honor guard with rifles at hand, all in place to provide the final salute to this decorated Navy veteran I was proud to call my Uncle. Today, in honor of Veteran’s Day, I wanted to share some memories of his funeral that took place earlier this year, along with a little trace of the history that leads to some of the formalities during a military funeral at Arlington in Washington, D.C.
The setting was Arlington National Cemetery which I recently learned sometimes has up to 30 funerals a day. Just think about that. And of course not every funeral involves full military honors, but when they do it’s a memorable and moving tribute to the veteran being honored as well as the entire family.
So the protocol goes like this. First the church service, which is of course optional but for our family was a Catholic Mass, conducted in the Old Post Chapel located on Ft. Myer, adjacent to ANC. Nothing too out of ordinary there except that you are limited to about 20 minutes due to the aforementioned multitude of daily services. And when the deceased is receiving full military honors, the escort, in our case Navy for Captain Jack, will do a precise five point turn as they escort the casket in and out of the chapel prior to loading it onto the awaiting caisson. (As a point of reference receiving the “five point turn” means that the veteran was released [retired] from the military under honorable conditions.)
When you exit the chapel you are met with the awesome full display of those military honors as you witness the band standing at reverent attention while the casket is moved, again with military precision, from the bier to the horse drawn caisson. And while there are six horses pulling the wagon there will only be three riders as a historical reminder that originally the horses on the right side were used to deliver artillery into the fields of battle, while the horses on the left were riderless leaving room to bring bodies in from the battlefield.
The procession from Chapel to burial site is tempered and somber, with the military band silently marching in unison behind the horse drawn caisson. In our case it was about a mile and a half to the burial ground, enough time to contemplate the sober reality of passing by thousands of buried veterans including decorated soldiers, legendary astronauts, scientists, Presidents, and famous sports figures alike, all who had devoted their lives to our country’s enduring freedom.
Arriving at the plot you begin contemplating and witnessing the final farewell in this order: Casket down, flag stretched and leveled with blue field of stars at the casket’s head meaning the left shoulder of the deceased, no soldier skipping a beat with this swift action. Then, with silent military precision, the casket is brought to the grave site, a benediction is given followed by the formal command to “present arms!” Seven members of the Navy firing party (tracing this tradition back to its’ inception, most naval vessels had seven cannons on board) release three volleys each in unison, followed by the bugler’s somber playing of Taps, a veteran’s final call to rest.
“Day is done.
Gone the sun.
From the hills. From the lake. From the skies.
All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.”
Military Taps is an emotional timbre of only 24 notes but one that you never forget. At this point, the flag is again stretched, leveled, centered, and meticulously folded into the familiar triangle, and again following protocol, done in precisely 1 minute and 55 seconds, before being presented to the family, always with these words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, The United States [Navy], and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Then, in a touching nod to my uncle’s Scottish heritage, we heard the haunting melody of Amazing Grace from a bagpiper, followed by the final salute from the military band as they marched away.
So many traditions that are honored and so much protocol followed in a military funeral and yet no details seems trivial or without meaning. Everything done to preserve dignity and pay one final respectful tribute to the veteran’s burial.
If this little personal glimpse fascinates you, I encourage you to read a more complete account in a newly published book, A Sacred Duty, written by Senator Tom Cotton, himself a former veteran and member of “The Old Guard” , meaning those who perform all burials at ANC as well as guard and protect the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of the highlights to any visit to Arlington.
Finally, in one last detail and fitting tribute to any military funeral at Arlington, there is always one soldier who remains by the veteran’s casket after the family and mourners have left the graveside until it is interred providing the true meaning to, “I’ve got your back, soldier.”
Captain MacKercher, 1929-2019
Anchors aweigh, my boy, anchors aweigh! Until we meet again here’s wishing you a happy journey home!
This post written in loving memory to Captain John C. MacKercher, USN, Retired, aka “Uncle Jack”, and all those Veteran’s we honor each year on November 11.