Draping the Casket with the National Flag
This custom began during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815). The
dead carried from the field of battle on a caisson were covered
with a flag. When the U.S. flag covers the casket, it is placed so
the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder. It
is not placed in the grave and is not allowed to touch the
Flags for Military Funerals
Flags are provided for burial services of service members and
veterans. The flag for one who dies on active duty is provided by
one's branch of service. The Department of Veterans Affairs
provides flags for other veterans. The flag is presented to the
next of kin at the end of the funeral, usually by the military
Practice of Firing Cannon Salutes
The custom of firing cannon salutes originated in the British
Navy. When a cannon was fired, it partially disarmed the ship.
Therefore, firing a cannon in salute symbolizes respect and trust.
Click here for information on the Order of Arms of Cannon Salutes.
Practice of Firing Three Rifle Volleys Over the
This practice originated in the old custom of halting the
fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army
had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that
the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to
The fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen,
firing three volleys, does not constitute a 21-gun salute. Anyone
who is eligible for a military funeral (honorably discharged
veterans, retirees or active duty military) is eligible for a
three-rifle volley, subject to availability.
All personal salutes may be traced to the prevailing use in
earlier days to ensure that the saluter placed himself in an
unarmed position. Salute by gunfire is a most-ancient ceremony. The
British for years compelled weaker nations to make the first
salute, but in time international practice compelled "Gun for Gun"
in the principle of an equality of nations.
In the earliest days, seven guns was a recognized British
National Salute. Those early regulations stated that, although a
ship could fire only seven guns, the forts could fire for honors
three shots to one shot afloat. In that day powder of sodium
nitrate was easier to keep on shore than at sea. In time, when the
quality of gun powder improved by the use of potassium nitrate, the
sea salute was made equal to the shore salute -- 21 guns as the
highest national honor. Although for a period of time, monarchies
received more guns than republics, eventually republics claimed
There was much confusion caused by the varying customs of
maritime states, but finally the British government proposed to the
United States a regulation that provided for "Salute to be Returned
Gun for Gun." The British at that time officially considered the
international salute to be 21 guns and the United States adopted
the 21-gun and "Gun for Gun Return" August 17, 1875. Previous to
that time, our national salute was one gun for each state. The
practice was also a result of usage -- John Paul Jones saluted
France with 13 guns (one for each state) at Quiberon Bay when the
Stars and Stripes received its first salute. This practice was not
authorized until 1810.
By the admission of states to the Union, the salute reached 21
guns by 1818. In 1841, the national salute was reduced to 21 guns.
In fact, the 1875 adoption of the British suggestion because a
formal announcement that the United States recognized 21 guns as an
"Taps" is an American call, composed by the Union Army's
Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield while in camp at Harrison's
Landing, Virginia, in 1862. Butterfield wrote the call to replace
the earlier "Tattoo" (lights out), which he thought too formal. The
call soon became known as "Taps" because it was often tapped out on
a drum in the absence of a bugler. Before the year was out,
sounding Taps became the practice in both Northern and Southern
camps. The call was officially adopted by the U.S. Army in