Military Funeral Ceremony Procedure, Protocol, Etiquette and Schedule of Events

This page specifically outlines what to expect, protocols, procedures and what is included with a military funeral honors ceremony. To see information about Last Salute, click the FAQ button above.

The American Flag should always be placed upon the casket with the field of blue over the left shoulder of the deceased.  The stripes should be over the foot of the casket.  Whenever the casket is moved, it should always travel feet first, including in the hearse.  If the casket is lifted for movement by pall bearers, not only should it travel feet first (stripes first) but, the tallest pall bearers should be at the head of the casket so that the head remains elevated above the feet for travel.

Protocol for an urn is that the flag will be pre-folded, typically by the funeral director prior to the services.  It will be folded in the triangle pattern as it should be.  The flag and the urn should be displayed together during all services with the flag on the left and urn on the right or the flag leaning on the front of the urn.  When moving the flag and urn, the flag should always lead.  In other words, if one person is moving the flag and another the urn, the flag should lead the way.  Once at the cemetery or location which honors are to be performed, uniformed personnel will unfold and then refold the flag in front of the family for presentation.

Often, the military or uniformed personnel will need to inspect the flag or exchange it prior to the honors being rendered.  This is to assure that the flag was/is folded correctly so that it unfolds in a professional, dignified manner.

During the "viewing", orientation of the flag upon the casket is, the field of blue should always be top left, whether the casket is open or closed.  If closed, the flag should cover the entire casket with the field of blue top left from the viewers (seated friends and family).  If the casket is open, the flag may cover the bottom closed portion of the casket with the field of blue still orientated top left of the portion of the casket it covers.

When the flag is placed upon the casket no items may be paced on top of the flag, including flowers.

The flag may also be folded properly and placed inside the casket at the head of the deceased leaning against the opened casket lid.

If you need more instruction or a photograph, please contact us.

When you arrive at the cemetery or the location where the military honors will be rendered, uniformed personnel should be standing at the side of the road at the position of attention.  The hearse carrying the flag draped casket should pass them slowly as they "present arms" (salute).  Once the hearse passes the saluting military representatives, it will stop.  Once stopped, the uniformed personnel will end their salute ("order arms") and move to a different position.

At this time, family pall bearers should assemble at the back of the hearse to prepare for moving the flag draped casket to the grave.

The flag draped casket should be carried feet first (stripes first) toward the grave and placed upon the "device" at the grave feet first unless it is not possible or safe to do so.

During this movement, and any movement of the casket or urn, all uniformed personnel should be at the position of attention and saluting until the casket or urn stops moving.  Under the "Defense Act" of 2008, veterans, whether in uniform or civilian attire may also salute.

Once the casket or urn is placed at the grave, all personnel may stop saluting (order arms).  Pall bearers may now return to sit or stand with family and friends.

If you need more instruction or a photograph, please contact us.

Clergy and eulogies will always proceed before honors are rendered unless the religious component of the service dictates otherwise.  For example, it is a Jewish funeral.  Often, Rabbis will want the casket lowered into the grave prior to religious services.

If it is important to you that honors go first, please discuss this with the honor guard.

Once clergy and eulogies are completed, military honors will be rendered.  The most basic honor ceremony consists of the playing of Taps and then the folding and presentation of the memorial flag.  Once the flag is presented to the "next of kin", the ceremony is completed.

Other components, (additional honors), may include a rifle team firing three volleys.  It is only called a "21 Gun Salute" for the President.  For everyone else, it is a "gun salute".

Last Salute honors typically include, (in order) Prayer Box ceremony, Firing a military Civil War cannon for a single volley, tolling a memorial bell three times, rifle volleys, Taps, flag folding and presentation, posting a flag at the grave and presentation of rifle casings and/or cannon fuse.

Additional honors may include military caisson transport for dignified transfer.  People normally associate a military funeral caisson with the horse drawn carriage at Arlington.  This carriage is used for short distances within the national cemetery only for specific ranks or award recipients.  The Last Salute caisson used for dignified transfers is an up armored military slant back Humvee with machine gun turret pulling an M1102 artillery trailer (gun trailer).  An artillery trailer is what the caisson trailer is normally referred to in England when used for Head of State or Royal funerals.  The Last Salute caisson is available upon request if available and time allows.

We will discuss the individual components of the ceremony below.

This item is unique to a Last Salute ceremony.

The Last Salute Prayer Box contains all the prayer cards or photographs of those we honor.  At each ceremony, we ask a family member to place their loved one's prayer card or photograph into the prayer box.  Once they do that, their loved one becomes a permanent member of our Honor Guard, travelling with us everywhere we go and overwatching everything we do.  Our prayer box has been to Arlington, many military bases, flown on a Blackhawk helicopter, aboard the Battleship New Jersey, recently to Parris Island where it was worn in a military backpack and carried through participation in the rifle range, obstacle course, gas chamber and crucible, just this past Memorial Day it was placed in another military backpack and marched 21 miles in full battle gear, and then it was honored at the last World War Two Medal of Honor Recipients funeral ceremony where his family placed his prayer card inside.

Specific to Last Salute and some ceremonies at Arlington

At Arlington, the firing of a cannon is reserved for Field and General officers or heads of state.

Last Salute believes all those who serve deserve this honor so we fire it at every funeral ceremony.  If an immediate family member is active military and arrives in full dress uniform, they may be asked to fire the cannon.

To be historically accurate, the "gun" salute actually referred to cannon.  A cannon was called a gun and existed before rifles or handguns.  The tradition of firing three volleys (typically seven cannon) began before the rifle and handgun were invented.  Additionally, the plural of cannon is cannon but can be cannons.

This component is not typical of all Honor Guards.

A large memorial bell is tolled slowly three times as the cannon smoke clears.

A rifle team fires three volleys.  It is only called a "21 Gun Salute" for the President.  For everyone else, it is a "gun salute".  Even if it is seven rifles firing three times for a total of twenty-one, it is still a "gun salute"

The rifle team is to be positioned so as to fire over the flag draped casket or flag and urn.

To be historically accurate, the "gun" salute actually referred to cannon.  A cannon was called a gun and existed before rifles or handguns.  The tradition of firing three volleys (typically seven cannon) began before the rifle and handgun were invented.  Additionally, the plural of cannon is cannon but can be cannons.

the playing of Taps is absolutely required by all military funeral details.  The bugler is to face slightly away from the family at a distance of approximately thirty feet.

The military specifically prohibits the playing of "echo Taps".  This statement is easily found in three sections of the military manuals regarding military funeral procedures.

This idea of sounding Echo Taps may have started when Union buglers played the tune for the first time at Harrison’s Landing (now Berkeley Plantation). Confederates across the James River repeated the new sound, thus introducing it into both armies. As the call grew in popularity, it was not uncommon to hear the sound of Taps being performed at the same time each evening by buglers in other companies, thereby giving an echo effect. The call is meant to be sounded by a solo bugler and really should be performed that way. 

It is also required is that a uniformed person play Taps.

A properly folded memorial flag will be a tight and neat triangle with no red showing. 

Once folded, the flag is presented the closest relative (next of kin) unless otherwise designated by appropriate authority. 

As the flag is presented the person presenting the flag should say:

"On behalf of the President of the United States, The United States (branch of military), and a very grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved ones honorable and dedicated service."

The person receiving the flag should be at the front of those gathered so that they are easily accessible after the flag is folded.

Some thoughtful considerations;

Conditions may cause the flag to be folded less than perfect.  These conditions include high wind, hard rain, frozen hands or the wrong flag.  Those folding the flag want it to be perfect so please be patient and silent as it is folded.  This is most likely the final time it will be folded and then after presented, placed on display in a home or office for quite some time.  It must be right.  Those who served honored the flag, now it must honor them.

A funeral/memorial flag is a specific size.  Unlike the many flags you see or possess for flag poles.  Not all flags are designed to be folded the way a memorial flag is.  In fact, most often it is not possible, not only due to size but material.  Memorial flags are heavy cotton most others are nylon.

A military funeral honors ceremony is conducted professionally and solemnly to honor and respect those who serve our great nation.  Those attending the service should behave accordingly.

Turn off cell phones, remain silent, dress appropriately and respect the process.  If you are attending the service, then you must care for the deceased so be sure to honor them and their service by observing military tradition and legacy.  Most of all, be respectful.

The military and veterans' groups conducting these ceremonies are following procedures and protocols that are not flexible or inconsequential.  They are sacrosanct traditions of deep meaning to those who serve.   The disciplined protocol and procedure at these ceremonies, standing at attention, saluting and every carefully practiced movement is to honor the fallen.  The carefully prepared uniform and the strict professionalism too, are a symbol of respect and honor.

All of this to honor your loved one and to make sure that you leave the cemetary with a profound sense of pride.