U.S. military funerals have their own elements that vary by rank. Basic military funeral honors feature an American flag draped over the casket, an honors detail of two or more uniformed military persons, including one being a member of the veteran’s parent service of the armed forces, flag folding and presenting, and the playing of Taps.
At graveside, the honor detail conducts a flag-folding ceremony, meticulously folding the flag 13 times, creating a distinctive triangular shape covered by the blue field with white stars. A representative of the veteran’s service branch then presents the folded flag to the veteran’s next of kin. The protocol is to kneel in front of the recipient, holding the folded flag waist high with the straight edge facing the recipient, while leaning toward the recipient.
Each of the five military branches uses slightly different wording to present the flag. They are:
Army: “As a representative of the United States Army, it is my high privilege to present you this flag. Let it be a symbol of the grateful appreciation this nation feels for the distinguished service rendered to our country and our flag by your loved one.”
Navy: “On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.”
Marine Corps: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”
Air Force: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of (Service Member’s rank and name).”
Coast Guard: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and the Coast Guard.”
Some military funerals include a three-volley salute, performed by a rifle party of three, five or seven members – always an odd number. The tradition of using an odd number in gun salutes is traced to an old naval superstition that even numbers are unlucky. The rifle party points their muzzles over the casket at graveside, standing a distance away so as not to deafen the attendees. If the funeral is conducted indoors, the rifle party fires their volleys outside upon a signal from a funeral director inside. The guns do not fire bullets, but compressed air cartridges.
The funeral ends with the playing of Taps, either by a live bugler or more likely, given the few buglers available, an electronic recording. Taps is played while the honor detail gives a final salute.
Full military honors for full Colonel officers and above (or corresponding ranks in other armed forces branches) may include a horse-drawn caisson for the casket; a rider-less horse, symbolizing a fallen leader; an escort platoon and military band; and in special circumstances, an aerial flyover of Air Force fighter jets in the “Missing Man” formation.