Military Funeral Customs

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This custom began during the Napoleonic Wars (1706-1815). The dead carried from the field of battle on a caisson were covered with a flag. When the U.S. flag covers the casket, it is placed so the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder. It is not placed in the grave and is not allowed to touch the ground.


Flags are provided for burial services of service members and veterans. The flag for one who dies on active duty is provided by one's branch of service. Flags for other veterans are provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The flag is presented to the next of kin at the end of the funeral, usually by the military chaplain. If there is no next of kin present, the flag may be presented to the veteran's close friend or associate if requested. The flags that have draped the caskets of the Unknown Soldiers are on display in the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater.


The custom of firing cannon salutes originated in the British Navy. When a cannon was fired, it partially disarmed the ship. Therefore, firing a cannon in salute symbolizes respect and trust. THESE SALUTES ARE FIRED ONE AFTER ANOTHER.


This practice originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight. CONTRARY TO PUBLIC OPINION, The fact that the firing party sometimes consists of seven riflemen, FIRING 3 VOLLEYS OVER THE CASKET DOES NOT SIGNIFY A 21 GUN SALUTE.


All personal salutes may be traced to the prevailing use in earlier days to ensure that the saluter placed himself in an unarmed position. Salute by gunfire is a most-ancient ceremony. The British for years compelled weaker nations to make the first salute, but in time international practice compelled "Gun for Gun" in the principle of an equality of nations.

In the earliest days, seven guns was a recognized British National Salute. Those early regulations stated that, although a ship could fire only seven guns, the forts could fire for honors three shots to one shot afloat. In that day powder of sodium nitrate was easier to keep on shore than at sea. In time, when the quality of gun powder improved by the use of potassium nitrate, the sea salute was made equal to the shore salute -- 21 guns as the highest national honor. Although for a period of time, monarchies received more guns than republics, eventually republics claimed equality.

There was much confusion caused by the varying customs of maritime states, but finally the British government proposed to the United States a regulation that provided for "Salute to be Returned Gun for Gun." The British at that time officially considered the international salute to be 21 guns and the United States adopted the 21-gun and "Gun for Gun Return" August 17, 1875. Previous to that time, our national salute was one gun for each state. The practice was also a result of usage -- John Paul Jones saluted France with 13 guns (one for each state) at Quiberon Bay when the Stars and Stripes received its first salute. This practice was not authorized until 1810.

By the admission of states to the Union, the salute reached 21 guns by 1818. In 1841, the national salute was reduced to 21 guns. In fact, the 1875 adoption of the British suggestion because a formal announcement that the United States recognized 21 guns as an international salute. THESE SALUTES ARE FIRED ONE AFTER ANOTHER AND THE NUMBER OF GUNS IS BASED ON THE RANK OF THE PERSON BEING SALUTED. The President of the United States and other heads of State rate 21 guns.