Today is President’s Day, and I’m forever grateful to our Founding Fathers who made it possible for us to live in America today. But I’m also forever grateful to our military men and women – and their families – and the sacrifices they all make to keep us free.
I got a fresh reminder of that at a memorial service this weekend for a member of my husband’s extended family who was a Vietnam veteran. Even though I was only around him a few times since marrying into the family, I remember him being a warm, caring, and funny man. That was emphasized ten-fold during his service as people spoke again and again about his love for family, friends, and God; his willingness to offer help before it was even asked for; and how everyone always knew he was a friend who “had your back.”
He was also very active with local groups supporting Vietnam veterans and disabled veterans, which I hadn’t known. But, it didn’t surprise me because of the kind of man he was. Several veterans participated in the service, but a good number of others attended out of respect and love for him. That says a lot.
Maybe it was because I haven’t been to a military service in a few years, but the ceremonial parts were especially touching. Each of his military friends still carried themselves with pride and with ingrained habits, from their measured steps to curling their fingers as they stood with their arms by their sides. And there’s still something special about a military person in dress uniform, no matter how gray the hair might be.
All of it got me thinking about the history behind parts of the service, which of course meant I went Googling. And I learned some interesting things along the way …
- Draping the casket (or table, at a memorial service) with the national flag began during the Napoleonic Wars in 1796-1815. The dead were covered with a flag when they were carried from the field of battle on a caisson.
- The U.S. flag is placed so the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder of the person who served. It is not allowed to touch the ground.
- The familiar Taps tune is a variation of an earlier bugle call. It was composed by General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army during The Civil War. Originally used to signal “lights out,” the somber tune became a traditional way to honor service members, eventually becoming a staple at funeral services to honor the extinguishing of a life.
- After Taps has been played during the service, the flag is carefully folded into the symbolic tri-cornered shape. A properly proportioned flag will fold 13 times on the triangles, representing the 13 original colonies. The folded flag is emblematic of the tri-cornered hat worn by the Patriots of the American Revolution. When folded, no red or white stripe is to be evident, leaving only the blue field with stars.
- Each of the 13 folds of the flag symbolizes something in particular. To read about each one, visit this page on the American Legion’s website .
- The folded flag is then presented as a keepsake to the next of kin or an appropriate family member. Each branch of the Armed Forces uses its own wording for the presentation. You can read them here on the Military Salute website.
After an American flag has been used for a military or veteran’s funeral, it should never be flown again or displayed in any other way than the tri-fold shape it’s folded into before being presented to the family.
I’m proud that we have the flag from my father-in-law’s service and am even more proud of what it stands for, now that I’ve had my history refresher. God bless America, and all the men and women who work so hard to keep us free.
Your turn: What is the most moving part of a military funeral or memorial service for you?