The Symbolism Behind Military Funerals

A military funeral is a time-honored tradition intended to pay tribute to fallen service members and veterans who served their country faithfully and honorably. Every aspect of a military funeral is carefully choreographed and steeped in deep symbolism. These symbols honor the deceased’s courage, commitment, and sacrifice. 

Let’s explore the rich symbolism behind a military funeral and the meaning of each element of this solemn occasion.

The symbolism behind military funerals

The Flag-Draped Casket

A service member’s casket is always covered with the American flag, the blue field placed over the deceased’s left shoulder. This tradition started in the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars. At the time, the flag covered the deceased as they were carried out from the battlefield.

A Horse-Drawn Caisson

In case of full military honors, the flag-draped casket is transported to the place of interment in a horse-drawn caisson. All the horses are saddled, but only those on the left have a rider. This custom stems from the days the horses on the right carried ammunition. 

If the procession is for an Army or Marine Corps officer above a colonel, the caisson is followed by a caparisoned horse. This single horse with no rider symbolizes that the fallen soldier will never ride again. This arrangement was used for the first time to honor Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The 21-Gun Salute

The 21-gun salute involves firing 21 rounds of artillery in quick succession to symbolize respect and mourning for the deceased. The number 21 is symbolic in the military as it represents the sum of the numbers in 1776, the year the U.S. gained independence.

The Three-Volley Salute

The three-volley salute is often mistaken for the 21-gun salute. However, this custom involves firing three volleys from rifles instead of artillery weapons. It was first used to indicate that the battle can continue after a ceasefire to take care of the wounded and the deceased. 

The Playing of Taps

Taps is a bugle call sounded at a military funeral, memorial service, and wreath-laying. Few sounds are as easily recognizable and haunting as this somber tune. Taps was initially composed to signal “lights out” in the Army, eventually evolving to mark the extinguishing of a life.

The Ceremonial Flag Folding

At the end of the funeral service, the honor guard removes the flag from the casket and folds it carefully, following the proper procedure to commemorate the life of a veteran or a fallen soldier. The flag is folded 13 times. Each fold has a specific meaning: 

  1. A symbol of life
  2. A symbol of the belief in the eternal life
  3. A tribute to the deceased
  4. A symbol of weak human nature
  5. A tribute to the country
  6. A symbol of the heart and its undying loyalty
  7. A tribute to the armed forces
  8. A tribute to those who died
  9. A tribute to womanhood
  10. A tribute to the father
  11. A symbol of the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon
  12. An emblem of eternity

The last fold leaves only the stars visible at the top as a reminder of the national motto, “In God We Trust.”

Once folded, the flag is presented to the family to express gratitude for their sacrifices.

The Last Salute

A military funeral is a moving way to honor veterans and those who died defending the nation and its values. At Hollywood Forever, we can make special arrangements for a military funeral. Contact us to give your loved one a proper last salute.


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