Honoring our Shipmates: The Heritage of the Military Funeral and Burial at Sea

May 23, 2015 | By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Honoring the deceased is a centuries-old practice that includes many traditions across cultures. The customs and traditions behind military funerals and burial at sea date as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. In the Navy's culture, as we give the final honor to our shipmates, we employ traditions that not only signify the service of the deceased, but also display our commitment to their legacy.
Photo By: NHHC
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Reversal of Rank
In Royal Connell and William Mack's "Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions," it is noted that the reversal of rank at military funerals is modeled after an ancient Roman custom of "reversing all rank and position when celebrating the feast of Saturn," showing that, at death, all are equal. This is signified by positioning the honorary pallbearers and all other mourners, if practicable, in reverse order of rank.

Firing Three Volleys
The custom of firing three volleys at funerals comes from an old superstition. It was once thought that evil spirits escape from the hearts of the deceased, so shots are fired to drive away those evil spirits. "The number three has long had a mystical significance," write Connell and Mack. They note that in Roman funeral rites, earth was cast three times into a grave, mourners called the dead three times by name, and the Latin word vale, meaning "farewell," was spoken three times as they left the tomb. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also notes that the firing of three volleys "can be traced to the European dynastic wars when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded." The funeral volley should not be mistaken for the twenty-one gun salute which is fired for the U.S. President, other heads of state, Washington's birthday, and the Fourth of July. At Navy military funerals today, three volleys are fired by a firing detail of seven riflemen during the funeral of active duty personnel, Medal of Honor recipients, and retirees just before the sounding of taps.

The sounding of taps is perhaps one of the most moving and well known elements of military funerals. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, taps originated from the French final call, "L'Extinction des feux," to extinguish the lights. This "lights out" bugle call was used by the U.S. Army infantry during the Civil War, but in 1862 Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield suggested a revision of the French tune, and we now have the 24-note bugle call we hear today. Taps was first played at a military funeral in Virginia when Union Capt. John Tidball ordered it to be played as a substitute to the traditional three rifle volleys so as not to reveal the battery's position to the nearby enemy. At Navy military funerals today, taps is played by a military bugler after the firing of three volleys and just before the flag is folded.

The National Ensign
The National Ensign plays a very special role in today's military funeral traditions. The custom of placing a flag over the body of a fallen soldier has been recorded in the days before the American Revolution when a private in the British Guards by the name of Stephen Graham wrote that the Union Jack was laid upon the body of a fallen soldier who died in the service of the State to show that the State "takes the responsibility of what it ordered him to do as a solider." Today, this custom is practiced in American military funerals as a way to honor the service of the deceased veteran. The National Ensign is draped over the casket so the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. After Taps is sounded, the body bearers fold the flag 13 times representing the 13 original colonies into a triangle, emblematic of the tri-cornered hat word by the Patriots of the American Revolution. When folded, only the blue field with stars should be visible. The flag is then presented to the next of kin or other appropriate family member.

Burial at Sea
Another type of ceremony for honoring the deceased is the burial at sea (also called the "at sea disposition") performed on a U.S. Navy vessel. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the tradition of burial at sea is one that dates back to ancient times and has been a practice for as long as people have gone to sea. The body was sewn into a weighted sailcloth and in very old custom, the last stitch was taken through the nose of the deceased. The body was then sent over the side, usually with an appropriate religious ceremony. During World War II, many burials at sea took place when naval forces operated at sea for months at a time.

Today, active duty service members, honorably discharged retirees, veterans, U.S. civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command, and dependent family members of active duty, retirees, and veterans are eligible for at sea disposition. The ceremony for burial at sea is conducted in a similar manner to that of shore funerals, with three volleys fired, the sounding of taps, and the closing of colors. The casket or urn is slid overboard into the sea after the committal is read, or, if requested, the cremated remains are scattered into the sea. Flowers or wreaths are also allowed to slide overboard or tossed into the sea by a flag bearer. Because the committal ceremony is performed while a ship is deployed, family members are not permitted to attend burials at sea. So, within 10 days after committal, the commanding officer of the ship will mail a letter giving the date and time of committal and include any photographs or video of the ceremony, the commemorative flag, and a chart showing where the burial took place. For many centuries, funerals have been a way to give our final respects to our loved ones. The customs and traditions that we share during the ceremony make it all the more meaningful.

Request Military Funeral Honors
For information on requesting military funeral honors, visit https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/mfh. For detailed information and protocol for Navy military funerals, see Bureau of Naval Personnel instruction NAVPERS 15555D. For information on burial at sea, contact the U.S. Navy Mortuary Affairs Burial At Sea Program.