Honoring the Fallen: Military and Line-of-Duty Funerals

‘Honoring the fallen’ is a phrase used during line-of-duty funerals, services, and other memorials that pay tribute to military personnel and other frontline roles who fall in the line of duty. Over the years, the military has embraced numerous traditions and customs to honor the memory of those who have fallen in service.  

Recommended course: Military and Line of Duty Death Services 

History of honoring the fallen for military and line-of-duty funerals 

The exact origins of military funeral traditions are unknown. Since the Revolutionary War, the principle “never leave a fallen comrade” has been a core value in the American armed forces and incorporated as a maxim in the Soldier’s Creed. Legally, the military is required to bury the deceased and return all their belongings to their family.  

Honorary funerals also emerged during the Revolutionary War, introducing customs observed in today’s ceremonies. Drummers and fifers would play while the deceased’s unit gathered outside their tent. Six soldiers would carry the body to the grave for a religious service. After burial, firing three volleys would act as a final tribute. 

The three-volley salute dates to the Roman era, when a soldier removing a former comrade would repeat their name three times at night to honor their sacrifice on the battlefield. 

What to expect at a military funeral honors ceremony? 

Most funeral directors are familiar with the military honors that service members can receive, which are determined by rank, length of service, and availability. Modern-day military funeral honors consist of a minimum of two uniformed personnel to carry out the core components of a funeral with military honors. At least one must be a member of the veteran’s branch of military service. 

Taps and the ceremonial bugle 

Taps consists of 24 notes played on a ceremonial bugle and is unique to the United States military. Once a signal for lights out, they now serve as a vital element in honoring the fallen at funerals, memorial services, and wreath-laying ceremonies. 

Many will recognize the melancholy melody that stirs emotions and hearts with its first note, representing the finality of the ultimate sacrifice of death. 

Symbolic folding of the flag 

Throughout the service, the flag covers the casket, with the Union blue field positioned at the head and over the deceased’s left shoulder. After Taps has played, the symbolic folding of the U.S. flag into the tri-cornered shape takes place.  

The diligent flag folding involves 13 folds, each representing a colony and carrying a symbolic meaning. The first fold represents life. The final fold, with the flag wholly folded and the stars uppermost, serves as a reminder of the national motto, “In God We Trust.”  

“The folded flag is emblematic of the tri-cornered hat worn by the Patriots of the American Revolution. When folded, no red or white stripe is to be evident, leaving only the blue field with stars.” (American Legion Auxiliary, 15 June 2017) Following the flag folding is the flag presentation, with the straight edge facing the recipient.  

Who is eligible for military funeral honors? 

The Defense Department, upon receipt of a request form, arranges for individuals eligible for a full military honors funeral. Those who are eligible include “the National Defense Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-65) authorizes Military Funeral Honors to Active-Duty Soldiers, Retirees and Veterans.” (HRC United States Army Human Resources Command, November 2023) 

Individuals not meeting the criteria for military funeral honors include those discharged under dishonorable conditions or stripped of veteran’s benefits, as well as serving or former members with a criminal conviction by the federal or state. 

Active-duty services 

If a military member is killed or passes away during active service, The Department of Defense (DoD) will “Return the remains of deceased personnel to the location designated by the person authorized to direct disposition (PADD) in the most expedient means possible while maintaining dignified and respectful care of the deceased.” (DoD Instruction 1300.29 Mortuary Affairs Program, June 28, 2021) 

Regardless of military rank or branch, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is the arrival point for fallen service members. A Dignified Transfer Carry Team moves the body from the aircraft to a waiting transfer vehicle. 

The next destination is the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, where personnel prepare the deceased for their final resting place. Family members, the chaplain, VIPs, and journalists can follow the hearse. 

Line-of-duty deaths 

Numerous public servants often face dangerous situations when carrying out their duty to protect the public. The dedication of law enforcement, fire rescue, and emergency services personnel is evident. Often, they willingly put themselves in harm’s way and sometimes suffer fatal consequences.  

When organizing a funeral for a Line-of-Duty Death, a funeral director assists the deceased’s family. They frequently support the community and the organization where the deceased served. Expressions like “brothers and sisters in blue” highlight the strong bond between colleagues in public sector services.  

Procedure following a line-of-duty death 

Almost instantly following a report of an injury or fatality involving a public sector member, prompt coordination between departments begins. Irrespective of whether the deceased died at the scene or in the hospital, an escort will accompany the body to a morgue or place of inquest. A standing guard will remain with the body until it moves to the funeral home. 

Swift communication between the agency and the funeral home will immediately inform the next of kin. Cooperation between departments and funeral professionals follows a similar procedure to the military to ensure a smooth and respectful burial. Personnel may be assigned specific tasks for a seamless process. These may include:

  • Funeral coordinator
  • Family liaison officer
  • Public information officer
  • Cemetery coordinator

Funeral homes must be aware that a Line-of-Duty funeral will likely receive media and public attention. They may choose to use a funeral coach to transfer the body instead of a standard minivan or cargo van. 

At the final committal, bagpipes and drummers perform a tribute while receiving the casket before making the ‘walk of honor.’ After the committal service, a flag will be folded and presented to the family.