Full Military Honors: Ceremonial Interment as Sacred Compact

Timothy W Wolfe & Clifton D Bryant. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

If Ulysses S. Grant was correct in his observation that “war is hell!” then soldiers live on the edge of hell. The warrior’s duty is to wage war or be prepared to do so. Behind the facade of military parade pageantry and the pomp and circumstance of formal reviews and ceremonies; behind the military bands blaring martial music, the shrill clarion call of the bugle, and the staccato beat of the drums; behind the military costumes and the rainbow of colored ribbons and decorations—behind all these lies the existential truth of the military experience. Constituent to this truth are the ennui of garrison duty and the psychological trauma of combat. Gallantry in action and the unselfish heroic bravery of the battlefield belie the ubiquitous reality of combat death and dismemberment.

The universal soldier has historically and stoically faced the prospect of death with studied equanimity, enduring the anxiety, fear, and uncertainty that precede battle. Almost overriding soldiers’ fear of combat death is their concern about the fate of their remains. There can be dignity in dying, but there is no dignity in having one’s corpse left on the battlefield, at the mercy of the elements, unattended, uncared for, and unconnected to others. Soldiers cannot easily accommodate or assimilate the prospect of their abandoned bodies lying in desolation, subject to desecration, deterioration, desiccation, or disintegration. Confronted with this foreboding scenario, soldiers enter into an unspoken, but implicit, compact with their nation and their comrades. They will readily sacrifice their lives for their country, their people, or their comrades in arms, as long as they are secure in the knowledge that their remains will be reverently tended and that they will be laid to rest with proper respect, honor, and sincere ceremonial recognition of their supreme sacrifice—with “full military honors,” as it were. This is a compact that the nation dutifully fulfills.

The Dead as Residue of War

A product of war is death and the dead are its by-product. Prompt disposal or disposition of the dead is essential for several compelling reasons. Bodies deteriorate rapidly, especially in hot weather, and there is the immediate concern with aesthetic consideration. The stench of death can affect even hardened soldiers and can have severe impacts on their morale as well as their sensibilities. Dead bodies attract animals and insects, and the attendant desecration of the dead by such creatures can also be profoundly disturbing to the living, as well as an insult to the memory of the dead. Of course, health considerations also make disposition of the dead an important priority. Disease propagated by decaying bodies, insects, and water pollution can threaten the living and may ravage whole armies if left unchecked. If not removed, the dead can even become a handicap to movement and maneuver. Finally, the living need to identify the dead before deterioration renders this impossible.

Battlefield exigencies can necessitate the disposal of the dead in ways that are highly distasteful. For example, in his historical account of the American invasion of Tarawa in World War II, Hoyt (1978) describes this scene:

The mopping up on Tarawa was easy enough. On the fourth day it was the stink that bothered the men. Some 5,000 dead bodies lay rotting in the sun. The Marines could deal with the Japanese rapidly, and they did. The enemy bodies were collected in piles, hauled out to sea in Higgins boats, and dumped into the water. In its way it was not an unfitting end for these sailor-soldiers of an island kingdom. (P. 149)

Failure to remove the dead, or to bury them promptly, is to run the risk of having bodies simply disintegrate into unrecognizable remains that commingle with the earth. In World War I, during the siege of Verdun in France there were almost a million deaths on the battlefields around the town, and the months-long battles prevented the prompt removal of bodies. Webster (1994) describes the end result: “In what may be the most grisly statistic ever, fewer than 160,000 identifiable bodies were recovered. The rest were impossible to recognize or had simply been swallowed up by the explosions and mud” (p. 36).

After the war, a French national cemetery was established at Louvemont, France, near the battlefields. A huge ossuary was constructed and filled with fragments of skeletal material recovered from the surrounding areas. The bones are arranged in alcoves built into the ossuary walls. They are identified only by the sector of the Verdun battlefield from which they were recovered. Even today, more than 80 years later, bones are still found in the ground around Verdun and placed in the ossuary (Webster 1994).

In the view of the urgency of disposing of the mass of dead bodies after a battle, the thought arises that burning the bodies on funeral pyres might resolve the problem. This arrangement has been and continues to be used in cases of mass death, particularly where the deaths have been caused by disasters or epidemic disease. The burning of bodies like refuse, however, is considered to be a repugnant option for fallen warriors. Instead, throughout history,


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
— Carl Sandburg, 1918

with few exceptions, battlefield burial (or burial at sea for sailors) has become institutionalized as the appropriate disposition of the bodies of war dead.

For untold centuries, however, the practice of battlefield burial was not institutionalized as an official and standardized function of the military. Instead, various informal procedures evolved. In the time of the Caesars, for example, Roman legionnaires would have small sums deducted from their pay as dues to a burial club. This burial club would arrange for and pay the expenses of members’ funerals should they be killed in battle (Robinson 1971:18, 31). Alternatively, after battles the Roman legionnaires would compel captured warriors and/or civilians to bury the Roman dead.

In many other cases, fellow soldiers or buddies would simply bury their comrades as a matter of final respect and affectionate responsibility. Most frequently, the impetus for battlefield burial was command decision because of exigency. Sometimes, however, such burials were accompanied by relatively elaborate military ceremonial behavior. The ceremonies might be traditional or impromptu. Historian John Wright (1975) describes the military burial ceremonies that the American troops conducted during the Revolutionary War:

Military Funerals were conducted with dignity and solemnity. Those slain in battle were buried where they fell, the most honorable resting places for a soldier. Men who died in camp were buried on the color line, in front of camp, their bodies facing the enemy. (P. 24)

Wright goes on to detail a particular ceremony held for a slain lieutenant colonel, an artillery officer from South Carolina; it involved an honor guard with reverse muskets, flags, muffled drums and musical instruments, a marching formation, and three volleys fired over the grave.

In most instances, however, the commander of a military unit would simply order the burial of the dead (including the fallen enemy soldiers) as an expedient means of disposing of the problem. As American Civil War historian James Robertson, Jr. (1988) notes, “A necessary task after every battle was the burial of the dead; and with the summer’s heat working rapidly on hundreds of corpses, the gruesome and nauseous job was done with haste rather than reverence” (p. 225). In such circumstances, the dead might be buried in rows, trenches, or even mass graves. Retreating enemies might necessarily have to leave their dead behind. Sometimes, according to Robertson, civilians were impressed to bury the dead. In instances of inadequate or shallow burial, the graves might be washed out by heavy rains, and sometimes hogs would root out the bodies (p. 225).

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, fought by mass armies of up to a million men, the huge death tolls of battles greatly exacerbated the problem of after-battle body disposal (we discuss the history and evolution of military funerals in greater detail in a later section). Insight into the need for reestablishing equilibrium after death is requisite to an understanding of military funeralization, however.

The Need to Reestablish Equilibrium

When an individual passes from the world of the living to the world of the dead, this event creates disruption and social disequilibrium, not only for the relatively small group of persons directly involved with the deceased (e.g., immediate family, other members of the military unit) but for the larger social entity. The groups to which the deceased formerly belonged are obviously no longer the same groups after his or her demise. If the deceased was someone of special importance, perhaps a leader or some kind of celebrity, the disruption and social imbalance that results from his or her death is even greater. War represents, then, a time of tremendous social upheaval, as the specter of death is always present and potentially disruptive.

Obviously, it is important that there be in place a cultural (or subcultural) response to death that can dilute the fears of individuals or otherwise assist them in coping with death while also maintaining a degree of social stability and cohesion. Indeed, some students of death and dying contend that it is imperative that cultures develop social mechanisms for dealing with the disruption and anxiety that death precipitates (Riley 1983:192). It would appear that such a mechanism exists in the military in the form of burial with “full military honors.” Such ceremonial behavior helps to mitigate soldiers’ fears and anxieties inasmuch as it bestows a degree of symbolic immortality. It also provides closure to the soldier’s life, helps to restore group equilibrium, and fulfills the social compact.

Within the complex of fears with which soldiers must cope are fear of an unnoted death, fear of a lost or mutilated corpse, and fear of dying in a far-off land. All of these fears are made more manageable for soldiers through the promise that, in the event of their deaths, their comrades will make every effort to locate and retrieve their corpses, to care for and treat their bodies with reverence, to return them home (or to a suitable military cemetery), and to place them into the aggregate of fallen warriors. Although this is clearly not a “fair exchange,” in the sense that infinite honor and respect cannot restore life, it is a significant social exchange insofar as it affords important symbolic rewards for soldiers and their families. As one marine graves registration officer put it, “We want everybody accounted for, that will make the healing process quicker” (quoted in United Press International 1991). An enlisted Army graves registration specialist has described his job as follows:

We’re the guys who send our soldiers home. We’re the ones who get them out of here so their families can have them back again. All the parents and relatives don’t accept the fact their son or daughter might be dead until they see the remains. I feel like I’ve done something for them and their families. (quoted in Lamb 1991)

Throughout humankind’s existence, people have developed various social arrangements and behavioral configurations to assist them in their efforts to understand, accept, and transcend death and dying. One of the most important and universal cultural responses to death involves the social creation, assembly, and manipulation of death symbols and, thus, the very conceptualization and meaning of death itself. The military, as a formal organization and social institution, has developed over time its own symbolic approach to the need to confront death and dying.

In effect, although soldiers face the possibility of death and the very real chance that their bodies may be mutilated in far-off lands, the U.S. military guarantees that every possible effort will be made to locate and secure their corpses, return them home in the best possible condition, and provide for them funerals and places of interment that are compelling and memorable in terms of dignity and honor (Risch 1989). The implications of the changes that have occurred over time in the military’s handling of the dead are significant, both for individuals and for the larger social entity. Death in the military context is unique.

Death in the Military Context

Changes over time in the nature, extent, and consequences of war have necessitated certain structural changes in the military’s handling of body disposition and burial practices (Risch 1989). For example, the increasing numbers of dead, the fact that fields of battle have become farther away from soldiers’ homes, and the increasing destruction and devastation wrought by modern weaponry have altered the nature and consequences of death in warfare. Before we examine specifically the changing military response to death, we believe it is appropriate to consider death in the military within an understanding of the special circumstances and considerations that confront those who engage in battle.

The Importance of Comrades

The U.S. military has identified the crucial factor that successfully motivates intelligent and rational human beings to risk their lives: It is well documented that American soldiers (as well as soldiers from the Middle East, Asia, and Europe) fight and die not so much for political ideas, or love of country, or any other such lofty abstractions, but instead for their comrades in arms—their buddies (Henderson 1985). The fact that motivation for fighting is to be found in the intimate, interpersonal relationships among soldiers provides a potentially important insight regarding how soldiers cope with death and dying. A major impetus for soldiers facing death in battle is their concern for one another (Coser 1956; Elder and Clipp 1988; Henderson 1985).

It has also been well documented that the emotional bonds formed in combat, especially if the survivors have witnessed many deaths, not only help to sustain soldiers during the stressful time of combat but can last an entire lifetime. In fact, one important way in which combat soldiers can learn to cope with their residual postmilitary trauma is by maintaining ties with members of their former units. As Elder and Clipp observe (1988): “The loss of comrades in battle frequently reinforces social bonds among surviving members of a unit. These relationships and their social support can lessen the psychological impairment of combat trauma” (p. 178). In addition to providing the motivation to risk life and limb, as well as the social support needed to cope with past trauma, comradeship provides symbolic immortality. As Elder and Clipp write: “The sacrifice of life in the spirit of comradeship ensures a measure of immortality as the fallen live through the memories of survivors” (p. 180). They further comment:

When men fight for each other and their common survival, they also, in this sense, die and suffer wounds for each other. Some pledges in life become commitments between the living and the dead, between survivors and the memory of fallen comrades. There is an insistent obligation to remember, honor, and preserve the highest meaning of their sacrifice. Remembrance of the men who died unifies war comrades in a community of memory. (P. 183)

The Fear of Mutilation and an Unnoted Death

Not only do soldiers have to face the ever-present specter of death, they have to face the possibility that their dead bodies may be mutilated, lost, or even completely destroyed. As Dinter (1985) notes:

Even more revealing is the disproportionately strong psychological effect of the bayonet, or the Moroccan soldiers at Cassino who mutilated their victims, and were therefore particularly feared by the defending German soldiers. We are deeply afraid of losing our physical integrity by being mutilated. This fear is so great that mutilation even after death still scares us. Fear of mutilation is certainly greater than the fear of death itself. (P. 25)

In addition to the fear of death itself, and the possibility that their corpses may be mutilated if not completely lost or missing, soldiers in combat must contend with the fear of unnoted death. This fear is not so much one of no longer being alive as it is a fear of being forgotten forever. Put differently, an unnoted death means that the postself career—that is, the reputation and symbolic social presence that an individual has after death—may never proceed or grow, so to speak, for the fallen warrior. The importance that Americans place on keeping the memories of the dead alive is illustrated by our society’s emphasis on publicly and properly noting individual deaths, remembering the dead through various types of memorials, and marking the final resting places of the dead to ensure their symbolic presence in the social entity.

The anxiety that soldiers face, then, as they contemplate the possibility of an unnoted death, an unmarked grave, and the lack of symbolic presence in the social entity, is burdensome indeed. The U.S. military, correctly recognizing this set of fears, has addressed the task of ameliorating or at least minimizing these concerns and providing some means of assuring soldiers, their families, and society at large that those who serve their country will not be forgotten.

As war itself has evolved, so too has the military’s response to the death and dying of its members. In the next section, we discuss certain aspects of the military history of the United States, with particular attention to the numbers of war dead, modes of body disposition, and funeral customs. Space limitations necessitate our limiting the amount of detail we can present in this historical discussion. Our intent here is to provide an overview of how military customs and practices of body disposition have changed over time, with an emphasis on the social import of such changes.

The Military Response to Death

Historical Changes

When death comes to a military member—obviously not an uncommon situation during time of war—the body is handled and disposed of in prescribed ways, and there are customs in place to respond to the emotional and psychosocial needs of the deceased’s loved ones and, indeed, the functional needs of society. Today, soldiers who are killed in combat and veterans of the military are given not just “decent” burials but “inspiring funeral service[s] of great dignity” (Hinkel 1970:168). As we have noted, over time the American military has changed the ways in which it responds to the death of a members. Today’s military funeral—complete with a flag-draped casket, the playing of “Taps,” and a rifle or canon salute—has evolved slowly. The Civil War and World War I serve as important historical markers in this regard.

Several factors are responsible for the changes in the way the U.S. military responds to death; these include the locations of battlefields vis-à-vis soldiers homes, the numbers of war dead, and the military’s institutional ability and inclination to process the dead. As we have mentioned, the earliest wars in which the United States was involved were typically fought relatively near the homes of soldiers.

In the war of the American Revolution (1775-83), fought mostly by provincial troops and state militias (Addington 1994:12), the American soldiers were typically not very far from their homes, and the families of those who died could reasonably be expected to make whatever funeral arrangements they desired. This first U.S. war saw some 100,000 men fight throughout the entire war effort, but there were never more than 35,000 American troops fighting against the British at any one time. The loss of life for gaining independence was quite high, as some 25,000 American soldiers died in this war (Addington 1994:19). Although there were no formalized or routinized military funeral customs at this time, fallen soldiers, especially officers, were interred with respect and dignity (“Horses of Arlington” 1971:24).

The next major war in which the United States was involved was the Anglo-American War of 1812 (1812-15). In this campaign, the American Army made a rather poor showing, as mobilization of troops was poorly handled and military leadership was relatively weak. American troops traveled farther from their home bases than they did during the Revolutionary War, but the American losses were relatively light, with only 7,000 dead as a result of the war (Addington 1994:35). The handling of the dead in this conflict was again left to the idiosyncratic inclinations of unit commanders or to whatever prior arrangements individual soldiers had made. At this time, there were still no institutionalized arrangements for formal military burials or ceremonial observance of interments. The battlefield often became the graveyard. Writing about the U.S. military’s burial practices even up to the Civil War, Risch (1989) notes in her history of the Army’s Quartermaster Corps:

The return of the remains of deceased officers was an exception to the general practices followed in campaigns. Most officers and all enlisted personnel who died in battle were buried where they fell. For the most part, too, burial sites went unmarked and no records were kept other than the report of those killed in action. (Pp. 463-64)

After the War of 1812 and before the Civil War, the United States was involved in a war with Mexico over Texas (1846-48). This war saw soldiers from the East traveling to Texas and points south and west. Some 14,000 U.S. troops died as a result of this campaign, but only 2,000 of those deaths resulted from actual combat. The majority of deaths were caused by exposure, disease, and capital punishment meted out for desertion and war atrocities (Addington 1994:61). At this time there still were no formalized structures or procedures in place for processing and disposing of the war dead. It has even been reported that some 750 unidentified American soldiers were simply buried in a mass grave in Mexico City (Addington 1994).

Although in more recent times the mass interment of war dead has occasionally been carried out as a temporary measure, until more permanent and appropriate steps could be taken (i.e., until the bodies could be identified and prepared for shipment home for “proper” burial), the idea of permanently burying soldiers en masse is unthinkable in contemporary America. For example, in June 1980 the Veterans Administration announced plans to exhume the bodies of 627 unknown Civil War soldiers from individual graves for reinterment in a mass grave in an effort to make room for new burials. The headstone for the mass grave was to read “NOW WE ARE ONE.” Because these were unknown soldiers and burial space in national cemeteries is in increasingly short supply, the VA fully expected that it could accomplish this movement of bodies without any problems. However, many people were so outraged that the plan had to be scrapped (Kearl and Rinaldi 1983:701). In the United States we have come to expect that most persons, especially “respectable” persons, will be buried in their own individual graves with their own markers. However, we do tolerate mass burial for the indigent, as in the case of Potter’s Field in New York City. We treat the most marginal members of our society differently, even in death.


The Civil War (1861-65) marked the beginnings of some important changes in the way the military responded to death and dying. Two particularly important developments took place: (a) embalming came into practice, and (b) the military established formal mechanisms for keeping better records concerning death as well as providing markers at burial sites. As Risch (1989) writes:

The Civil War forced changes in the traditional policies governing burial and records. Recognizing that the War Department would be called upon to answer an increasing number of inquiries concerning the fate of individual volunteers, the Secretary of War took steps to preserve records. His first action, taken in September 1861, was aimed at the maintenance of records at Army hospitals. To preserve accurate permanent records of soldiers who died at Army hospitals, he directed the Quartermaster General to place blank books and forms for such record purposes at every general and post hospital of the Army. He also ordered him to furnish headboards for soldiers’ graves. Proper execution of the forms provided became the duty of the commanding officer of the military corps or department in which the individual died. (P. 464)

Although only relatively few soldiers made arrangements to have their bodies embalmed, not long after the Civil War embalming became very popular. According to Leming and Dickinson (1994):

It was not until the time of the Civil War that embalming was promoted to temporarily preserve the body for return to the soldier’s home. Some reports credit this practice to a military doctor by the name of Thomas Holmes. (P. 454)

Embalming was available prior to this time—anatomists, artists, and medical personnel were known to embalm bodies for their particular uses—but embalming to preserve bodies so that they could be transported long distances for burial was not a practice before this time. As DeSpelder and Strickland (1992) report:

Embalming the dead came into use in the years after the Civil War. President Lincoln’s funeral procession, which traveled from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, was a public event that increased awareness of the new practice of embalming. (P. 208)

Pine (1975:16) notes that as Lincoln’s funeral procession progressed through many portions of the Northeast and Midwest, people along its path became aware that it was possible to keep and view the dead for long periods of time. Although buried in 1865, Lincoln’s body was so well embalmed that when it was later viewed after exhumation in 1899, it was proclaimed to be in a perfect state of preservation. For such reasons, embalming became an increasingly important aspect of the American way of death.

Prior to the Civil War, U.S. war dead were not embalmed, but there are accounts of unembalmed dead soldiers from the Seminole Indian War in Florida and the Mexican American War being returned home for burial. During the Civil War, as previously mentioned, civilian embalmers did embalm thousands of soldiers on both sides and arrange for their shipment home for burial. During World Wars I and II, with few exceptions (such as some cases in which U.S. airmen in England were embalmed by English civilian embalmers), no embalming was performed on dead U.S. servicemen. In the latter stages of the Korean War, many dead soldiers were embalmed and shipped home. During the Vietnam War, dead soldiers at first were flown to the Philippines to be embalmed at a U.S. military facility, but later the U.S. military established embalming facilities in Vietnam (Johnson 1971). These mortuaries were very efficient; the time between a soldier’s death and his body’s return to the United States averaged 72 to 96 hours. When the body arrived back in the United States, it was restored, cosmetized, dressed, and casketed. A military escort accompanied the body by the fastest available transportation to the individual’s hometown, where it was turned over to the family’s funeral director (or the family) to be buried with “full military honors” (Kuehnert 1970).

In addition to the use of embalming, the Civil War saw another important change in the U.S. military as the country first experienced death on a tremendously large scale. Some 254,000 Confederate soldiers and 370,000 Union soldiers died during the war, for a total combined loss of approximately 624,000, the largest number of American military deaths ever. In many Civil War battles, soldiers fought and died far enough from their homes that long-distance transportation was necessary if a fallen soldier was to be buried in the family cemetery. Typically, soldiers who were killed, whether blue or gray, were buried near the field of battle. During this period, the military did not have specialized units that were responsible for handling and processing the dead; that was to come later.

Military Deaths Move Abroad

After the Civil War, the government of the United States was engaged primarily in expanding and controlling territory west of the Mississippi. The next military situation of significance for the nation involved a dispute with Spain, the Spanish-American War of 1898. Although this war originated over public concern regarding how the Spanish were treating rebellious Cubans, it quickly spread to the Far East, specifically the Philippines. Although the United States had hastily recruited and trained volunteers, scattering troops to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, the death toll was relatively light, with only 3,000 American lives lost (Addington 1994:128), and most of these to disease and bad food. As a result of this conflict, Cuba received its independence, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American territories. The trend of American soldiers fighting farther and farther away from home obviously continued in this war. The principle of returning war dead to their native soil that was established during the Civil War continued to be honored in this war, too. To the greatest extent possible, fallen soldiers were shipped home for interment in either private or military cemeteries, depending on the wishes of their next of kin (Risch 1989:689).

Military Cemeteries

It was not until after the Civil War that the U.S. National Cemetery System began to emerge (Risch 1989). One of the spoils of war for the Union was the Custis-Lee mansion, Arlington House, which was to become Arlington National Cemetery. Some have even suggested that Union soldiers intentionally buried their dead comrades on the property of the Custis-Lee mansion so that it could never be given back to its rightful owners.

As we have noted, another significant aspect of the Civil War was the volume of war dead it produced; this was the costliest war, in terms of human lives, that the United States has ever experienced. World War I also serves as an important historical marker, as it resulted in large numbers of war dead who were an ocean away from home. Although the creation of national military cemeteries began during and after the Civil War (at Gettysburg, for example, where Lincoln dedicated the cemetery with the speech we today know as the Gettysburg Address), it was after World War I that the U.S. government sought to institutionalize the creation, beautification, and maintenance of such cemeteries.

The American Battle Monuments Commission was established by law in March 1923, for the express purpose of

commemorating the services and achievements of United States Armed Forces where they have served since April 6, 1917 (the date of U.S. entry into World War I) through the erection of suitable memorial shrines; for designing, constructing, operating and maintaining permanent U.S. military cemeteries and memorials in foreign countries. (American Battle Monuments Commission 1971:8)

This agency now administers and maintains 23 cemetery memorials and 11 monuments in foreign countries as well as 3 memorials in the United States. Interred in the 23 cemeteries are some 124,888 American men and women who served in the armed forces (30,912 dead from World War I, 93,226 from World War II, and 750 from the Mexican War). These burials represent about 39% of the dead from World Wars I and II. It is interesting to note that “the decisions that these servicemen be laid to rest in foreign soil on or nearby battlefields where they fell were made by next of kin” (American Battle Monuments Commission 1971:8).

In addition to these burials, memorial tablets located at the cemeteries list the names of 91,591 military personnel who were missing in action or lost or buried at sea in World Wars I and II and the Korean War (American Battle Monuments Commission 1971:8). According to the American Battle Monuments Commission (n.d.):

These burial grounds unquestionably are the most beautiful and meticulously maintained shrines of their nature in the world. No others combine such fitness of design, beauty of landscaping and memorial features and immaculate care. (P. 2)

It should also be noted that these cemeteries are visited by 15 million people each year.

Beyond these foreign U.S. military cemeteries, the Veterans Administration has established and maintains 118 national military cemeteries on U.S. soil. Arlington National Cemetery, which contains the graves of 250,000 armed services personnel, civilian political officials, war correspondents, and journalists as well as the graves of some 3,800 former slaves, is the most famous, but there are other such cemeteries in 39 states (and Puerto Rico) (Leming and Dickinson 2001:411-13).

Any honorably discharged veteran, along with his or her spouse (and/or one dependent child), can be interred in one of these cemeteries (with grave lines or vault and grave marker) free of charge. At the burials conducted at these cemeteries, “families may be provided with a dignified military funeral ceremony, including folding and presenting the United States burial flag, the playing of Taps, and memorial certificate of appreciation signed by the President of the United States” (Leming and Dickinson 2001:411-13). The United States honors its promises to members of the armed services.

Other Changes in the Military’s Handling of the Dead

The Great War, as World War I has been called, lasted from 1914 to 1918. The United States, however, did not become involved in the war militarily until 1917. Despite this late entry, a significant number of American lives were lost—more than 170,000, according to some analyses (Clark 1931:1). The number of soldiers from all nations who died in this war is estimated to be greater than 8.5 million (Matloff n.d.:113). This war was so costly and utterly devastating to the nations involved that many hopefully claimed it was “the war to end all wars.” As we all too painfully know, that was not the case.

Several important changes in the military’s handling of the dead occurred as a result of World War I. For one, the Graves Registration Service component of the Quartermaster Corps was officially instituted in 1916; its mission was the retrieval, identification, and disposal of the dead. (The Quartermaster Corps had assumed some of these responsibilities during the Civil War, but it was not until World War I that the Graves Registration Service was formally established.) The Graves Registration Service was charged with returning the dead to their native soil to the greatest extent possible and also with establishing permanent overseas U.S. military cemeteries. The next of kin of fallen soldiers were given the option of having the bodies of their loved ones returned home for interment or laid to rest in an overseas military cemetery (Risch 1989). Several military funeral customs also had their beginnings during World War I.

The Preeminent Military Memorial

Perhaps the best-known American memorial was born out of World War I—the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This soldier, “known but to God,” was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in 1921 (Mossman and Stark 1971). Since that time, unknown soldiers from other U.S. wars have also been interred in this tomb. Since its inception, millions of people have visited this memorial to pay their respects. More than five million tourists go to Arlington annually to see this “unique monument to America’s honored dead” (Bryant and Shoemaker 1977:21).

Later Wars, Later Losses

Only a quarter of a century after World War I, the United States was once again drawn into a worldwide war. This time, American losses would be even greater than in the previous world war: Some 400,000 troops died fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters (MacCloskey 1968:52). Several significant outcomes, in terms of the military’s response to death and the dead, resulted from this war. Additional overseas military cemeteries were established to handle the large volume of war dead, and the graves registration function of the military improved in terms of efficiency as forensic techniques were developed that aided in the identification of the dead. As MacCloskey (1968) notes:

World War II was fought over vast areas of the globe and under circumstances that made recovery, evacuation, and identification much more difficult than during World War I. In spite of the many difficulties created by technological advances in warfare, the unknowns were only 3.7 per 100 recoveries. Improvements in the organization and operation of the various graves registration units in the worldwide theaters of operation reduced the number of temporary burial sites, which, in turn, facilitated the final disposition of the dead. Dental records and fingerprint charts were used to aid in the identification. (P. 52)

Since World War II, the United States has been involved in two large-scale military conflicts (in Korea and Vietnam) and one relatively minor military conflict (in the Persian Gulf). The loss of life for the U.S. armed forces in Korea was approximately 54,000 troops; American losses in Vietnam were approximately 58,000 (Information Please Almanac1992:306).

Having presented this overview of the historical and social evolution of death customs in the military context, we now turn our focus to contemporary military funerals.

Contemporary Military Funerals

The evolution of the U.S. military’s response to death is a compelling story. Today, a U.S. military funeral is an impressive and moving ceremony. In this section we address contemporary military funerals, examining traditional interment (i.e., earth burial) as well as burial at sea.

Military Honors

Military honors are of two basic types: standard honors and full honors. Standard military honors are provided at the funerals of enlisted members of the armed services by the particular branches in which they served (i.e., Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps). These honors include a bugler, a firing party, a casket team, and a military chaplain (if desired). Burial flags are also provided; for activeduty members, the particular branches provide the flags, whereas the Department of Veteran’s Affairs provides flags for veterans. In a funeral with standard honors, three rifle volleys are fired by seven riflemen, “Taps” is played by a military bugler, and a casket team performs the formal folding of the American flag that draped the casket.

In a funeral with full honors, all of the above takes place, and in addition an escort platoon, a color guard, and a military band are present. The size of the escort platoon varies according to the rank of the deceased. Funerals with full military honors are provided for commissioned officers and warrant officers. In addition,

officers buried in Arlington Cemetery are entitled to use of the caisson. Officers in the rank of colonel and above in the Army and the Marine Corps are entitled to a caparisoned (riderless) horse. General officers are also entitled to a cannon salute (17 guns for a four-star general, 15 for a three-star, 13 for a two-star, 11 for a one-star). Each service has variations to these funeral honors.

The president of the United States is entitled to a 21-gun salute, while other high state officials receive 19 guns. (Arlington National Cemetery n.d.)

The Ladies of Arlington

One of the most interesting features of military honors at Arlington National Cemetery is the support provided by the Ladies of Arlington. This volunteer group of ladies (plus one gentleman) is committed to seeing that no one is interred at Arlington without at least one mourner present. Most of the Arlington Ladies (there are approximately 60) volunteer about one day a month. Many of them have buried loved ones at Arlington themselves. To become an Arlington Lady, one must be the wife or widow of a service member and be referred by a current Arlington Lady.

The Arlington Ladies make certain that no one is ever buried alone, and that all are buried with honor. The Arlington Ladies attend the funerals of all U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force members, be they privates or generals, whether they receive standard or full honors. The Marine Corps does not have volunteers in the Arlington Ladies group, but a representative of the commandant of the Marine Corps is present at each funeral of a marine.

Another organization that provides support and assistance to the bereaved is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national nonprofit organization serving families, friends, and military service members who have been affected by active-duty military deaths. TAPS offers a variety of services, including peer support, crisis response and intervention, grief care and counseling resources, casework assistance, long-term survivor wellness services, and community and military education and outreach. All of these services are available 24 hours a day free of charge. (More information is available on the organization’s excellent Web site at http://www.taps.org.)

Burial at Sea

Soldiers are typically buried in the ground (or, alternatively, they may choose to have their ashes placed in a columbarium), but sailors have the option of being buried at sea. This ancient death practice has its roots in necessity. As we have noted above, corpses require disposition. In the past, it was not always practical for those at sea to wait until their ships returned to port before they disposed of their dead, so an alternative had to be found.

As with earth burial, military honors can be rendered during burial at sea. The Naval Historical Center (1999) gives this description of burial at sea services:

Personnel participating or attending the services must wear the Uniform of the Day. When a chaplain of appropriate faith is not available, the service may be read by the commanding officer or an officer designated by him/her. The committal service is as follows:

  • Station firing squad, casket bearers and bugler.
  • Officer’s call. Pass the word “All hands bury the dead” (the ships should be stopped, if practicable, and colors displayed at half-mast).
  • Assembly.
  • Adjutant’s call (Call to Attention).
  • Bring the massed formation to Parade Rest.
  • Burial service; The Scripture (Parade Rest), The prayers (Parade Rest, heads bowed), The Committal (Attention, Hand Salute), The Benediction (Parade Rest, heads bowed).
  • Fire three volleys (Attention, Hand Salute).
  • Taps. Close up colors. Resume course and speed at the last note of Taps (Hand Salute).
  • Encasing of the flag (Attention).
  • Retreat (Resume normal duties).

The Social Functions of Military Honors

Various social needs result from death, including the need to reestablish social equilibrium, the need to mitigate the fears that attend death, the need to find ways of transcending death, and the need to find meaning in death. Military honors speak to these needs. Military funerals and honors as social processes must be viewed and understood in terms of several contextual elements. In this regard, the funeral fulfills various social functions and communicates different social messages.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, 1915

Military Honors as Distinctive Subcultural Funeralization

Funeralization often mirrors the subcultural background of the deceased. Funeral ceremonies and behaviors may reflect the religious, ethnic, regional, vocational, and/or avocational linkages of the dead individual. Thus Catholic funerals, Chinese funerals, funerals for firefighters, and funerals for members of the Masonic lodge all have distinctive characteristics; there are even unique funeral services and practices for individuals with strong hobby interests (a model railroader, for example, might be buried in a locomotive engineer’s cap).

The military as a vocation and work system has its own highly singular subculture, and the military funeral is simply an extension of this subculture. Death does not necessarily disengage the individual from his or her religion, ethnic origin, avocation, or vocation. The funeral conveys continuity of membership and affiliation, and gives permanence to seminal social identity, such as nationality and occupation. Thus the military funeral of a U.S. serviceman or servicewoman eternalizes the deceased as an American soldier forever. Furthermore, the military funeral serves to strengthen the linkages between the living and the dead. It allows for a type of continuity or perpetuity such that all soldiers, dead or alive, share a connection or common bond. Thus, in an important and symbolic sense, soldiers do not die; they transfer to the Army Eternal.

Military Honors as Group Intensification

The military is a social group, as are its constituent, subordinate units. Membership in these units is a paramount dimension in military life, as it can lead to esprit de corps, loyalty, and group identity. The military is a fraternity, and the members are brothers. They live together, they fight together, and sometimes they die together. Just as soldiers may sacrifice their lives for their comrades in arms, so too will those comrades accompany their dead to the grave. The military funeral symbolizes participation in the group and group fealty. The honor guard symbolizes the unit, the playing of “Taps” articulates the group lament in musical mode, and the three volleys of gunfire represent both the experience of battle and the formal salute calling attention to the death of a soldier. Soldiers are not alone in battle, and they are not alone as they are interred.

Military Honors as Aggregation and Incorporation

The anonymity of the individual in the mass military is neutralized by the mechanism of the subordination and submersion of self into the larger social entity—often the military unit or units. The individual becomes merely a constituent part of the corporate entity, and individual meaning and fulfillment derive from group existence and collective accomplishment. In effect, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Accordingly, soldiers continually seek the security and satisfaction of collective unity and incorporation into the group entity.

The ubiquitous themes of aggregation and incorporation are always evident in military culture, as evidenced by the braggadocio of clichés such as “Rangers never die—they just go to hell and regroup!” These themes are universal and are found in all militaries. It is for this reason that warriors make every effort to find their fallen comrades and bring them together to rest collectively side by side for eternity. The U.S. military has sought to accomplish this goal by establishing military cemeteries both here and abroad. The dead soldiers have been collected from the battlefields where they fell, and from temporary grave sites, gathered together, and reinterred with great dignity to lie together, side by side as comrades in arms forever. Beyond the “regrouping” of collective burial, there is also the element of incorporation into larger entity of “fallen warriors”—the band of brothers, united and consolidated into one, forever. In effect, “Now we are one.”

The element of incorporation of the military dead has even come to be a component of the theology and mythology in some societies, such as Japan. In his historical account of the battle for Tarawa in the South Pacific during World War II, Hoyt (1978) writes of the Japanese naval forces:

They had been trained and exhorted in the tradition of bushido. They did not think of survival, but of dying honorably for the emperor, and taking with them as many of the enemy as possible. Then, after death, their souls would assemble at the Yasukuni shrine, that holiest of places for the warriors of Japan, and they would have eternal rest and eternal glory. (P. 69)

Military Honors as Symbolic Immortality and Memorialization

The military funeralization process, with its distinctive ceremonial characteristics and embellishments, serves to certify the deceased as a fallen warrior; it publicly legitimates the ultimate sacrifice, provides public announcement and celebration of the individual’s death, and memorializes the social fact of the soldier’s demise. The individual will be remembered and revered always for having laid down his life for his country. Thus the memory of the fallen soldier is indelibly fixed in the collective consciousness of the society. In addition, the memorialization serves to reintegrate the dead into the family unit. Family members come to visit the grave site; they may even enjoy picnics in the cemetery and, in a sense, include the deceased in family affairs.

An account from World War II, although specifically referring to how Japanese soldiers viewed death, provides a fine example of how warriors from around the world and throughout time have created meaning and coped with the prospect of death:

Those who died…were generously rewarded. Their spirits went to Tokyo’s celebrated Yasukuni Shrine—The Patriots Shrine or Shrine of the Righteous Souls—where they began a better life mingling with the spirits of other heroes and achieved a closeness to the Emperor beyond their aspirations while alive. (Feifer 1992:119)

Arlington, preeminent among American military cemeteries, is our Yasukuni. Burial there, or in any of the other American military cemeteries, here or abroad, “offers perpetual testimony of the concern of a grateful nation that the lives and services of members of the Armed Forces will be appropriately commemorated” (MacCloskey 1968:182).

Military Honors as a Social Exchange Mechanism

The fate of soldiers is to do battle with their countries’ enemies and, if necessary, lay down their lives as sacrifice to that purpose. As Alfred, Lord Tennyson phrased it:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Faced with the prospect of possible ignominious death, the desecration of their corpses, and burial in lonely and anonymous graves, soldiers are comforted—and, perhaps, to some degree compensated—by the knowledge that in the event of their deaths, every attempt will be made to recover and protect their corpses, and they will be accorded full military honors in death. These honors, will recognize them as soldiers, reflect their affiliation with their brethren warriors, aggregate them with their fallen comrade in arms, incorporate them into the battalion eternal, and memorialize and glorify them as fallen warriors forever. Thus full military honors can be conceptualized as a social exchange—the trading of life for eternal reverence and honor.


In dealing with its dead, the U.S. military has responded to changes in the nature and intensity of war. Whereas once war dead could be accommodated through impromptu means, modern warfare and mass armies have necessitated the introduction of formalized units and specialized techniques and procedures to recover, identify, and process the dead. In addition, military funerals have evolved from informal rituals to tightly choreographed formalized ceremonies that bestow military honors on those who have served their country. Although death resulting from service to the nation is obviously an event that soldiers hope and seek to avoid, the military’s response to soldiers’ deaths provides an exchange mechanism that diminishes, to some extent, the fear and finality of death. As Theodore O’Hara wrote so eloquently in 1847 (quoted in MacCloskey 1968:183):

On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.

After a battle, the military imperative is to regroup—to reassemble and reorganize. Only then can the soldiers bivouac, or encamp and rest with their comrades. In death, when soldiers receive full military honors and are ceremonially interred in military cemeteries, they simply regroup with their fallen comrades and lie in honored rest among them in the Bivouac Eternal.