It happened every Monday for three months. We arrived on a bus, the fifteen of us. We were early—intentionally early. The bus moved off a ways, as if to hide. The grass was green, the shade trees large. I made sure the one musician moved out of sight behind a tree. I sent seven men to stand several yards behind the chairs lined up on the grass. The other six men and I waited in the sun, by the road.
Then came the cars. Several cars, with one distinctive car in the lead. The six men with me lined up quickly in two rows of three. The lead car stopped next to us. We stood, unmoving, while the people disembarked from the other cars and moved to the chairs. Then the back door of this one car was opened. The six sailors in service-dress blue uniforms, with white web belts and white gloves, stepped forward and began to remove the casket from the back of the hearse. I commanded, “At a half-step, forward… march.” We moved across the grass, very deliberately. As they placed the casket on the special bier over the grave, I moved to my position at the right shoulder of the deceased.
A military chaplain, or maybe a civilian priest or minister, said a few words. Nobody was really listening. Nobody heard what he said. It was enough that he said them. As he stepped back I came to attention and ordered my detail to do the same. Then came the order, “Detail, fold…flag.”
Three sailors on each side of the casket picked up the American flag with which it was draped. With great precision they placed the opposite sides of the flag together, then repeated the procedure. The two men at the foot then began to fold the flag, corner to opposite side, and then upward along the edge that was now across the flag. Slowly, neatly, and with great care, they folded the flag until it was a blue triangle with white stars. As they folded I reached into a pocket and palmed a carefully prepared cardboard box. When the flag was folded and the last white glove tucked in the final edge, the final two men handed me the flag. As I took it, I placed inside the final fold the cardboard box I had taken from my pocket, with twenty-one expended M-14 shells inside.
Executing my crispest left face and turns, I slowly marched to the primary next-of-kin. Perhaps it was a wife; maybe a mother. Stopping before her I gently bent over and handed her the flag that had draped her loved one’s casket. “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation in acknowledgement of the service rendered by [rank] [name].” Then I came to attention and slowly raised my hand in salute.
As I did so, the bugler, still in hiding behind a tree, began playing taps. Nobody who has ever been associated with the military is unmoved by those notes, especially at a funeral. As the last note died away I slowly lowered my hand. As I did so, I could hear the command, “Detail, shoulder…arms. Aim. Fire.”
The crack of the first volley of seven rifles always has the same effect. The mourners all jump. The shock breaks down all resolve. The widow/mother, no matter how strong to this point, is finally granted the release of being able to cry. The second and third volleys ring out.
One more round of commands. I do an about face and order, “Detail!” From either side of the casket comes a soft, “Detail, left” or “Detail, right” followed by my command, “Face.” We all turn to face the road. “Forward…March.” We leave the scene to the mourners. Before we leave, however, the rifle squad must police their brass. I need another twenty-one empty shells for the next funeral. There is always a next funeral.
Twenty years later, I am thinking that God’s kingdom should have a flag that we can present at funerals. Then it struck me. I have been to many funerals of Christians. At each one I have seen God’s flag presented in a similar way. “His banner over me was love.” (SOS 2:4) As we show our love to the family of the one who has gone home, we say, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful kingdom in acknowledgement of the service rendered by…”