Military Funeral Rituals & Customs

military funeral rituals
A military funeral is a burial rite for a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman who died in battle, a veteran, other prominent military figures, or heads of state. The funeral may feature military elements such as guards of honor, the firing of volley shots as a salute, drumming, and draping a flag the coffin.

As the scripture goes, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:9-17). That is exactly what those in the military have vowed to do, if necessary. This is why service personnel are entitled to a military funeral if they have served.

Whether you are being interred in Arlington National Cemetary or a local cemetery, your eligibility is the same. If you are unsure how to navigate getting military funeral services for your loved one, your local funeral home should be able to guide you. Some funeral and burial costs might even be paid with a Veterans Death Benefit.

Bring the body to the cemetery
Funeral of SFC Robert Saxton. Picture by Tori Saxton-Gustafson

What Is A Military Funeral?

A military funeral is provided for those who have served in the armed forces during their lifetime. Whether you are currently on active duty or retired military, service members have a right to military funeral honors.

Who Qualifies For A Military Funeral

  • Members of the Armed Forces: There have historically been five branches of the armed forces. These include the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. A sixth branch, the Space Force, was implemented in 2019.
  • President of the United States of America: Recognized as the head of the United States Military, the president gets full military honors at his or her funeral.
  • Reserve Troops also qualify. This includes Army National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Army Reserve, Coast Guard Reserve, and Navy Reserve.
  • Veterans of the Armed Force who were honorably discharged.
  • Civilian or Contracted Sources who have been commissioned by the military into active duty.
Bulger plays taps

What Elements Are Present in a Military Funeral?

There are many elements standard to a military funeral service:

  • Honor Guard: A group of military service men or women in full dress uniforms perform the job of working the honor detail of a military funeral.
  • American Flag: The flag is draped over the coffin and later, the flag is removed and folded. The folded flag is presented to the next of kin.
  • Playing of Taps: Either a bugle corps or a lone bugler plays taps live or a recording is played.
  • 3 Gun Salute: The 3 shot volley is actually far more traditional than the 21-gun salute that most people associate with military funerals.

What Is The Order Of Events At A Military Funeral?

If the individual was killed in action or dies during military service, a unique set of customs are followed. The deceased person’s remains are always moved feet first, and the remains are given the honor by an honor guard at each transfer point and when reaching the final destination. The body is moved with a military escort to its final resting place unless the family has other requests.

At the grave site of a military funeral, there are certain things you are very likely to see. First, the flag-draped casket will arrive at the cemetery. It can be brought in a hearse, via horse-drawn caisson, or by another means. When my dear friend SFC Robert Saxton passed away his remains were transported in a Vietnam War-era Jeep to commemorate his service.

There is an honor guard of six individuals who carry the casket to the grave site. The flag is draped over the casket so the blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. Either a military chaplain or pastor will say some words, offer prayers, and read the committal service.

The honor guard will then begin the ceremonial process of removing and folding the flag.

One of the most interesting of all military traditions is the gun salute. A firing party will next fire the three volleys. The shells are always picked up and often tucked with the folds of the flag that was removed from the casket. The next step is for the bugler to play the song Taps.

To signify the formal end to the ceremony, whoever is the highest ranked military member in the honor guard will present the folded flag to the next of kin. This presentation includes a brief statement of gratitude and thanks for service.

Presenting the folded flag next of kin

What Is The Flag-Folding Ceremony?

The flag folding ceremony is the process of removing the American flag from the casket, folding it, and presenting it to an immediate family member. This portion of the honors ceremony is touching and memorable.

The American flag is held taut over the casket before folding it. The flag is folded in 13 distinct folds, into a triangle. Each of the folds has a distinct symbolic meaning, as explained in the article Meaning Behind the Military Folds.

The final three folds are symbolic. The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life. The second fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life. The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain peace throughout the world.

The folded flag makes a perfect triangle with a field of blue on the outermost layer. At the end of the service, the flag is given to the deceased person’s next of kin.

If your loved one passes away and has served in the military, you can proudly display the flag from their casket in a triangular display box.

Why Do They Shoot 3 Times At A Military Funeral?

The firing of the three volleys over the grave of a soldier is a long-standing tradition. Typically it is a firing party of seven service members who use rifles to fire the volleys. However, it does not have to be seven.

This custom began with an old custom of halting fighting during times of war so people could remove the dead from the battlefield. After the soldiers had removed their dead soldiers, three musket rifle volleys were fired as a signal that the fighting could resume. This is not the same thing as a 21-gun salute, even if there are 7 riflemen.

A 21-gun salute is the highest honor bestowed upon someone as part of their memorial service. According to Arlington National Cemetary sources, “The 21-gun salute, commonly recognized by many nations, is the highest honor rendered. The custom stems from naval tradition when a warship would signify its lack of hostile intent by firing its cannons out to sea until all ammunition was spent.”

Lowering the casket in dress uniforms

What Is The Dress Code For Military Funerals?

As a military funeral is a formal affair, everyone should dress accordingly. Anyone who is active military should wear the dress uniform of their respective branches.

For civilians, observing proper funeral etiquette is essential. Men who are not in the military should wear dress pants, a button-up dress shirt, and a necktie. Dress shoes and perhaps a jacket, if it is not too hot out, are also expected.

Women should wear either a skirt or dress pants and a blouse, or an appropriate dress. Clothing should be modestly cut and not revealing. Apparel for both men and women should be dark and somber in color.


Pam Berg is a former English teacher with a passion for writing. She has written for many years on a variety of topics and considers herself to be somewhat of a jack of all trades when it comes to writing. Although most of us tend to want to avoid the topic of death, whether it is us or a loved one, it is inevitable. Pam is dedicated to ensuring that as people are funeral planning they have access to a no-nonsense, straightforward laying out of the facts. However, she also recognizes that this is a topic that needs to be approached in a sensitive manner.

Recent Posts