Military Funeral

Veterans Cemeteries

All veterans* are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker. This eligibility also extends to some civilians who have provided military-related service and some Public Health Service personnel. Spouses and dependent children also are entitled to a lot and marker when buried in a national cemetery. There are no charges for opening or closing the grave, for a vault or liner, or for setting the marker in a national cemetery. The family generally is responsible for other expenses, including transportation to the cemetery.

In addition, many states have established state veterans cemeteries. Eligibility requirements and other details vary. Contact your state for more information.

Beware of commercial cemeteries that advertise so-called "veterans' specials." These cemeteries sometimes offer a free plot for the veteran, but charge exorbitant rates for an adjoining plot for the spouse, as well as high fees for opening and closing each grave. Evaluate the bottom-line cost to be sure the special is as special as you may be led to believe.

For more information, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs' website. To reach the regional Veterans office in your area, call 1-800-827-1000.

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 ground.

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 chaplain.

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 Grave

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 fight.

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.

21-Gun Salute

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 equality.

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 international salute.


"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 1874.

Military District of Washington (2003-05-24) "Military Funeral Customs". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 6/2011.

*Effective 09/09/1980, to qualify for free burial in a national cemetary, veterans should have served active duty no less than two years. Additionally, veterans cannot be buried in a national cemetery if they committed a capital crime. If murder suicide, the veterans' spouse, children could be buried but not the veteran. If they died before being convicted, they cannot be buried in a national cemetery.

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