Military Funeral Flag Etiquette

by Pamela Martin
A flag draped on the casket of a military veteran is a fitting honor.

A flag draped on the casket of a military veteran is a fitting honor.

Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

After military personnel spend a part of their lives defending the country it symbolizes, it is fitting that the American flag play an important role in the funeral rites of veterans. While the honor guard will usually take care of the draping of the casket and the folding and presentation of the flag, knowing the etiquette involved helps maintain the respectful dignity of the ritual.

History and Eligibility

The tradition of using the flag to drape the body or casket of veterans and government officials began in September 1912, when Major General Arthur MacArthur collapsed as he began the keynote address for a gathering the 24th Wisconsin Infantry unit from the Civil War. The unit's adjutant, Edwin Parsons wrapped MacArthur's body in the unit's original battle flag, which hung on the wall behind the speaker, and a new tradition was born.
In general, the Department of Veterans' Affairs will give a burial flag in honor of any veteran not dishonorably discharged. During a military funeral, the flag takes the place of a casket pall. Following the service, the honor guard ceremoniously folds and presents it to the family of the deceased veteran.
Over time, people have attributed symbolic meaning to each of the 12 folds, beginning with life and continuing through tributes to the deceased veteran, to the nation and to the Armed Forces. Originally, however, the triangular folding pattern was intended to set apart the folded flag from other, more mundane folded objects.

Placement

The union, or blue field, rests over the head and left shoulder of the deceased, on the closed casket. It should not touch the ground on either side. It typically remains in place until after the sounding of "Taps," which follows the traditional gun volley.

Presentation

Following the bugler's rendition of "Taps," the honor guard folds the flag into the traditional triangle, with the union on the outside. One member of the guard then stands in front of the family member receiving the flag, holding it at waist level, and hands it off, saying, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (military branch)and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."
The honor guard then offers a salute to honor the veteran for a final time. At this time, the recipient is not expected to stand or to return the salute, and the guard will likely remain silent as a respectful symbol of the silencing of the fellow service member.

Display of Burial Flag

While the Flag Code does not prohibit the flying of the burial colors, the fabric content of the flags provided are not conducive to prolonged outside use. Traditionally, the folded flag is placed in a case, often with the brass from the 21-gun volley. Many families display medals, awards and decorations with the flag, as well.

About the Author

Pamela Martin has been writing since 1979. She has written newsletter articles and curricula-related materials. She also writes about teaching and crafts. Martin was an American Society of Newspaper Editors High School Journalism Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching in elementary education from Sam Houston State University and a Master of Arts in curriculum/instruction from the University of Missouri.

Photo Credits

  • Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images