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My Coast Guard
Commentary | May 28, 2021

Memorial Day: Honor Guardmen reflect on the historical traditions of military funeral honors

By Seaman Annika Hirschler

On Memorial Day each year, Americans take time to consider the profound sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have given their lives for the ideals of the Constitution and the love of country. The ceremonies and traditions by which we honor our fallen heroes ensure that each individual is inextricably connected through the immortality of service. 

 The history of Taps, the iconic tune played at a service member's funeral, traces its roots to the American Civil War. 

In the Coast Guard's Ceremonial Honor Guard, along with all the other service's honor guards, the buglers chosen to play Taps in Arlington National Cemetery are meticulously rehearsed.   

"Every time I play Taps, there is emotion to it,” said Seaman Michele Marchetti, an honor guard member and bugler, “Especially at active-duty funerals where I can see the deep emotion in the family's eyes as I play." Taps is often punctuated by three volleys are fired.  

In 1862, U.S. General Daniel Butterfield, while recouping after a major Civil War battle in Harrison's Landing, Virginia, began developing new bugler tunes to signal the soldiers to go to sleep. His final product was a 24-note tune known as "Extinguish Lights". The tune was so moving that it rapidly spread to other Army units and was even adopted by the Confederates. 

Not long after the tune was developed, it was used at military funerals during the war. It was not only adopted for its symbolism but also for safety. Military leaders saw the bugle tune to be safer than the traditional firing of three rifle volleys over the soldier's grave, as to not alert the enemy of their whereabouts. "Extinguishing Lights", now synonymous in the U.S. military with the ceremony of laying a service member to rest, came to be known as Taps. 

Often accompanying Taps at a service member's funeral is the firing of three volleys, sometimes often confused with the 21-gun salute. While the 21-gun salute is reserved for rendering honors to the President of the United States and visiting Heads of State, the three-volley of the military funeral signifies specifically the fallen soldier. In historical military combat customs, fighting was ceased so that the dead and wounded could be removed from the field of battle. After this was accomplished, three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume. 

In accordance with federal law, military funeral honors are authorized for all military personnel discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. A military funeral honors shall, at a minimum, consist of the folding of a United States flag, presentation of the flag to the veteran’s family, and the playing of Taps.