Draping the Casket with a Flag

This custom began during the Napoleonic Wars (1806-1815) when the dead were sometimes carried from the battlefield on flags, and when covered with flags they were placed on the caisson.

When the flag is used to cover a casket, it is placed with the field of blue and stars at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag is not lowered into the grave, nor allowed to touch the ground.

 The 21 Gun Salute

In 1875, the British Government proposed to the United States that a regulation be created whereby the international salute of honor would be a 21-gun salute. The United States agreed and it became the highest national salute possible. Previous to 1875, our national salute was one gun fired for each state.

 Taps

“Taps” is an American bugle call composed by Union General Daniel Butterfield, while in camp at Harrison’s Landing in 1862. Butterfield wrote the piece to replace the earlier “Tattoo” (lights out), which he thought was too formal. The call was soon known as “Taps” because it was often tapped out on a drum in the absence of a bugler. Because it was often unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave on account of the proximity of the enemy, the sounding of “Taps” was decided as the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted. Before the year was out, sounding “Taps” became the practice in both the Northern and Southern Army camps. “Taps” was officially adopted by the United States Army in 1874.

 The Riderless Horse

A riderless horse following the deceased in a funeral procession dates back many centuries. In ancient civilization, a warrior’s horse was often sacrificed at the funeral. The horse, sheathed in cloth or armoured coverings, bore a saddle with a saber attached and stirrups reversed, symbolizing that the deceased had fallen as a warrior and would ride no more.

 The Practice of Firing Three Volleys over the Grave

The ancient military custom of firing three volleys signaled that one side wanted to stop fighting and remove the dead from the battlefield. When the troops were ready to resume fighting, three volleys would again be fired.

Today, the volleys symbolize that the battle of life is over for the person we are burying but that the battle of life must continue for the living when they leave the gates of the cemetery.

 The Color Black

Black is the common symbol for mourning and respect for the deceased in American culture. The use of black historically was initiated out of fear of the deceased. People in ancient times believed that if they did not disguise themselves, the spirit of the dead would possess the body of the living.

 Slow Funeral Processions

Originally, hearses were carried by people. The slow pace of funeral processions today is thought to simply be a sign of respect for the deceased. While this may be true today, in the 16th century, when the lighted candelabra was a ceremonial part of the funeral cortege, the slow pace was a matter of common sense. Simply stated, if the bearers carried the hearse too fast the candles would blow out. It is interesting that this slow pace is still reflected in our motorized hearses speed even though the vehicle can go fifty times faster. 

 The Word Hearse

The hearse was not originally a vehicle to transport the dead but was in fact a “rake.” The evolution of the hearse, from a primitive farm tool to today’s vehicle, is anything but straightforward. The story begins with Roman farmers who would plow their fields with an implement called a hirpex (Latin for rake). The hirpex was a triangular implement made of wood or iron with raking spikes attached to one side. In 51 B.C. when the Romans conquered Gaul, they introduced the hirpex to Western Europe and eventually it reached Great Britain where it was called the “harrow.”

The name changed again in the 11th century when the Normans invaded Britain, pronouncing harrow “herce.” They noticed that when the rake was inverted, or turned upside down, the rake resembled their religious candelabra. The candelabra resting on the altar had always played an integral part in the Norman funeral service. In time, it increased in size as additional candles were incorporated to honor the rapidly growing list of saints and to celebrate new holidays.

By the 2nd century, the larger herce (or candelabra) was placed over the bier during funeral services for a distinguished person. Hundreds of years later, in the 15th century, the hearse had grown in size; it now measured six feet long, skewered scores of candles, and was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. By the 16th century in Great Britain, the wheeled cart conveying the casket and candelabra became known as a hearse, (the later English spelling of herce) thus, the final step in the rake’s evolution to today’s funeral vehicle.