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Military Funeral Etiquette

silhouette of soldier

As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, I have been honored to participate in motorcycle escorts and flag lines for hundreds of veterans who planned, or whose families planned, military funerals. This includes participating in my son’s military funeral escort, who served in Afghanistan with the USMC. Each experience is as unique as the individual and the friends and loved ones in attendance. There is a thread of commonality, though, something important for everyone to know: Military funerals are carried out with a stirring level of dignity and respect, especially if memorial services are carried out at a National or State Veterans cemetery, or National Park Service cemetery.

For planners:

If you’re responsible for planning a military funeral or military burial, a funeral director is typically responsible for coordinating the arrangements. One of the first things he or she will need is evidence of eligibility, which is the veteran’s DD Form 214, which contains information about time of service, discharge status, decorations and citations earned, and other details of the veteran’s military service. Veterans may also be buried or interred at a private cemetery. The veteran or family may also specify military honors with the appropriate evidence of eligibility.

If you wish to request military funeral honors, the “DD-214” provides your funeral director and the veterans cemetery administrator key details in contacting the appropriate branch of service to provide the color guard and rifle detail. In either case (military or private cemetery), some or most of the burial or internment expenses are covered by the government. Your funeral director can guide you through the process of requesting reimbursement when the final resting place is a private cemetery.

Any VA regional office can aid in requesting or receiving reimbursement submissions, and the proper forms may be found on the Veterans Administration website.

The next of kin, family members or close friends of a deceased veteran eligible for burial or internment in a national cemetery may also request and receive a Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC). A PMC is a certificate signed by the current president that officially honors the veteran’s service and, if ordered in time, may be presented to the recipient at the military funeral or burial wherever it occurs. Full details and eligibility requirements, including the forms needed to request a PMC may be found on the Veterans Administration website.

For attendees:

Military funerals can be at the same time inspiring and melancholy, uplifting and sad. While visitations are typically a time for families and friends to tell stories, laugh and celebrate the full life of the person being remembered, military burial services require a certain decorum appropriate for honoring a veteran.

Whether the funeral service is held in a private or national/state veterans cemetery, there is usually a strict time limit based on the availability of the military rifle detail and color guard. At a national, state or Park Service cemetery, there are staging areas or families scheduled for ceremonies on the same day. Cemetery representatives will meet the immediate family, funeral director, and clergy to provide burial documents and, at the appropriate time, lead the people gathered for the service to a committal shelter or the site where internment will occur (the grave or a cremation niche structure). The “choreography” varies slightly at difference cemeteries; some hold services in the shelter and others permit services to be held at the grave or niche location.

Regardless of if the burial or internment takes place at a private or government cemetery, the family may choose to have a reading or music performed or played prior to the military rites. Clergy may of course be present. At the conclusion of the family’s brief service, the honor guard from the veteran’s branch of service will commence military honors.

This is for me, where the goosebumps begin: The playing of “Taps,” the folding of the flag (13 tight folds into a triangle where only the blue field of stars are shown), the presentation of the flag to the next of kin, and the slow hand salute. If there is a Patriot Guard Rider escort, the captain of that group also provides a commemorative plaque to the next of kin.

Other things to remember about national or state cemeteries:

Government cemeteries offer standardized grave markers or columbarium (cremation niche structures). While you may specify some of what is engraved on the markers, there are word and line limits.

You may bring flowers to accompany the casket or urn, which the funeral director or funeral home staff will bring to the grave or internment site.

Some cemeteries allow family members to linger if the service is permitted at the grave or columbarium site. If the military funeral is held at a committal shelter, the family is typically asked to visit the burial site or columbarium at the end of the workday rather than immediately following the ceremony. This gives the grounds keeping staff enough time to move the casket or urn to its final resting place and close the grave or niche.

Eligible veterans and surviving family may request burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Funerals at this hallowed location are different, and details may be found on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

At The Love Always Project, we believe that by accepting, embracing, and planning for death, we can ease the pain of friends and family while providing a final chance for connection. Access additional resources to help you and your loved ones prepare. Learn more about our mission and join the movement.


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