Military and Funerals…
The soldiers stood at attention with their swords lifted as the coffin arrived through the doors of the church. Inside almost every military member that was not working on that day filled the pews of their fallen friend. I sat quietly next to my husband just behind the wife. There wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel…mine included. We were young and I had never been to a funeral when I attended this one. The Coast Guardsmen was twenty-four and had walked off a cliff in Alaska while hiking in the fog. It was a tragic loss and all I could think of at the time was…this could be my husband.
The Chaplin spoke from the pulpit while the Honor Guard stood silent watch over the ceremony. Yes, the term is ceremony. Unlike many civilian funerals, a military funeral is shrouded in dignified rituals and ceremonious protocol. I don’t remember giving the ceremony much thought back then. I was upset and remember looking around at my peers wondering if they were thinking what I was thinking. The deceased was a very well liked young man with a great personality. He and his wife were trying to get pregnant and they were excited about the future. She had just found out she had conceived. Every person in that church was thinking about God’s hand in their lives and wondered what could possibly be the reason for this tragedy. When the young man’s flag covered coffin was carried out past us, we followed brokenhearted and wondering about our own mortality and that of our active duty military.
It has been many years since then and I have witnessed a handful of funerals where our military have been present. It is always the same now, now that I am aware of my surroundings and the numbness of death. The parking lot is scattered with men and women in their best dress uniforms, quietly talking and waiting to enter the church. They wait all together while the family and friends take their place inside. Then they silently enter in mass. Every civilian is aware of their presence as they watch the group remove their covers and sit rigidly shoulder to shoulder in the back of the service. They each enter the condolence line and whisper words of comfort to the family, whether they had met before or not. Such was the case of my mother-in-law’s funeral. My husband and I sat quietly in the front pew not aware of the large presence of Coast Guardsmen waiting outside to enter. What it was that made us all turn, because they did enter quietly, I will never know. But we turned and my husband’s heart was comforted knowing that his men felt the desire to provide him support in his time of need. Again they showed up on the sad passing of a wife who had taken her own life. The chapel filled to the brim and each member held their friend and his children, supporting them in the best way they knew how.
Today I witnessed the highest form of military burial, the one held in Arlington at the National Cemetery. As my husband and I exited our car, there in the parking lot stood the “uniforms” quietly waiting. Because the memorial service was held on Fort Meyers,it was clear that most everyone standing outside The Old Post Church would be wearing uniforms. On the direction of the burial director, the servicemen and women were asked to enter the church. The last to enter was the family taking their seats in the front row. Two Chaplains took their place on the pulpits and were prepared to eulogize the fallen member as the organ played the Service Member Hymn. Unlike my first funeral, I was very aware of those around me and the ceremonial protocol in place. No one sat with the Commandant of the Coast Guard except his Executive Assistant, and behind him sat the Admirals. The Captains and non-commissioned officers all sat on the opposite side of the aisle and the civilians filled in behind the military. It was surprisingly the opposite of what I had come to know.
Behind me I heard the clicks of shoes and knew that the funeral procession had begun as the Honor Guard silently marched in carrying the American flag and the cremated remains of the fallen service member. We all stood silently watching as they placed both on a small table bearing the members picture. I felt a tear slid down my cheek as I watched his family dab their eyes. The chaplains spoke eloquently about his service to our country and his new home in Heaven. The organ began to play a soft hymn as the sound of orders being issued were heard from outside the church doors. The clicking shoes of the Honor Guard again filled the old church as they retrieved the fallen member. We followed quietly out the door.
Outside the caisson (horses and coffin) stood waiting for the ceremonial ride to the service member’s final resting place. The Honor Guard stood in formation just in front of the caisson ready to lead them on a mile and a half or more trip down to the internment wall. I was startled to see so many Coast Guardsmen when I came out of the church. There were four members flanking the caisson and at least thirty standing in ranks. My husband found his place behind the two highest Admirals while I found my car to follow in the procession.
What I experienced next was surreal. I doubt that many people write about their experiences with funerals in Arlington, and perhaps that is why I felt I should share with you now…but the procession was like the one we all see on TV. The Honor Guard marched for close to two miles as the caisson clapped against the pavement. Those visiting the cemetery stood silently as the caisson passed, some with their hands over their hearts, others at attention. The tombstones in their uniformed rows, white against the plush green of grass and trees, sat in endless formation. As I drove, I read the name plates of active service members and their spouses,finding that the women’s stones only read “His wife.” The procession wound it’s way from the top of the cemetery down to the base,and to my surprise,we were met by another set of Honor Guard. They stood at attention near the wall of internment, while the marching Honor Guard took their place in the field behind the bugler. To their right seven riflemen stood at attention like toy soldiers preparing for battle. We followed the walking procession thru the Honor Guard and to the Internment Ceremonial stage. There the highest ranking Admirals and Chaplains spoke. One brought it all home when he said, “You are mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes…”(James 4:14) Then the guns were raised and the twenty-one gun salute shook the grounds and those of us standing. The clicks sounded against the walls as the Honor Guard moved to fold the unfurled flag. They popped it’s sides and corners and tucked our American Pride into itself until it was ready to be presented to the family.The lead Guard sharply turned and presented Old Glory to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, who saluted the flag then ceremoniously placed his hands above and below the flag, taking possession of it from the Guardsman. Turning with pride and the call to duty, the Commandant turned towards the family. Quietly he knelt down in front of the spouse and brought tears to everyone’s eyes when he said, ” Please accept this on behalf of the President, the Coast Guard and a grateful nation. He then shook the family member’s hands, followed by the Admirals, Chaplains and each member of the Honor Guard standing in ranks near the stage. I was startled by the words of encouragement and sincere condolences these complete strangers bestowed on the grieving family. Not a single Guardsman said the same thing to the three family members. It was incredibly touching and all I could think of was how special the moment had been.
At the conclusion of the ceremony we were led to the internment wall where a brass box bearing the fallen guardsmen’s name was place into the wall in silence. The Chaplain spoke again, the family played a seventies song, “Spirit in the Sky”…and then it was done, finished, over… we quietly said our own condolences and departed the cemetery.
I imagine that this will not be my last military funeral or one where our military will be present…But one thing is for certain, our active military understand the importance of honoring our loved ones probably more than most…for it is they that risk their lives to protect the very loved ones for which they honor.