Memorial Day 2015
I’ve ranted before about Memorial Day on this blog in a post here and another one here. I wanted to do another this year, but I don’t like to recycle posts and there’s only so much glorification one can do, even for an important day like Memorial Day. Today isn’t Memorial Day, but more on that later.
This year, I thought I’d deviate a bit, and be a little teachy instead of preachy. I’ve noted before that Memorial Day has been set forth to remember and honor our military dead. All cultures have ways of honoring their fallen warriors.
The Spartans would bury them in simple graves near the family home. Roman custom dictated a marker, which probably started the Western custom of gravestones. Celtic warriors were cremated in a pyre. Contrary to lore, Vikings were buried in boat-shaped, rock-lined mounds along with their weapons. Samurai were cremated according to Buddhist tradition, while the Mongols would lay out a warrior in a rock outline of the body upon the Steppe to allow nature to claim him back. Our Native Americans followed similar traditions, especially in the Great Plains. Most of our military burial customs and ceremonies derive from British and European traditions.
Our fallen are draped with our flag, the blue field of stars over the dead’s left subjective shoulder. The origin of this custom comes from the 18th century. I like to believe this is symbolic of the country returning the honor to the fallen for sacrificing his or her life in its service. In our recent wars, our dead rest under our flag from the theater of war until they are buried, even on the aircraft bearing them home.
If used, a caisson – a horsedrawn cart used to transport ammunition – bears the casket through the cemetery. In our Civil War, caissons were the only carts available to carry the dead from the battlefield. Supply carts were too far to the rear to be of use.
Six horses draw the caisson, the three on the left with riders, those on the right bearing equipment. For senior fallen military, a riderless horse with boots mounted backward in the stirrups follows, led by another military servicemember. This symbolizes that the dead will never ride again.
The salute detail fires twenty-one shots in honor of the fallen. Again, this custom originates in the Civil War. Following each bloody battle, each side would call a temporary cease-fire to collect their dead. When one side finished, they would fire three shots to indicate that they were prepared to fight again. For our military dead, the salute echoes the 21 shots given to honor dignitaries and other people of importance.
Gravesite honors involve the careful folding of our flag. While there are many theories behind the significance of the thirteen folds that create the triangular shape, there is no official significance assigned to this. Once complete, the burial detail commander presents the folded flag to the designated next of kin and offers condolences on behalf of the President and the nation.
At the conclusion of the burial ceremony, a lone bugler plays Taps. During the Civil War (again), General Daniel Butterfield wrote this tune for the bugle because he did not like the one used to signal that lights and fires should be put out. The music is still used for this purpose, but the haunting sound of the notes has been adopted into the burial honors of our military. It symbolizes the idea that they now may enjoy their final rest.
I opened by pointing out that I’ve put this post up in advance of the holiday itself. I did this for two reasons. First, I like and need reminders for important stuff. Here’s your reminder to think about our fallen military on Monday.
Second, May 30th is the 23rd year of service in the Army. It’s been a long, hard ride but I don’t regret a minute of it. Most of all, I like to remember that without the sacrifice of those in uniform before me, I could not have enjoyed my own adventure.