Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Last Salute

The flag of our country was taken from its sealed cardboard box, unfolded, and two people from the funeral home carefully refolded it in a very specific way, with each fold having a special meaning.  It ended up being  a thick triangle of material, white stars on a field of blue facing outward, and it was carefully placed in the corner of the open casket just above his left shoulder.  As family and friends came in to pay their respects and to say goodbye, they looked on the display tables and easels at the old photos and other memorabilia and they spoke of the times they had spent with him.  But as they stood at the casket, gently touching his body, then the flag at his shoulder, they were overcome with unexplainable emotion. 

The next day, the funeral service began when everyone was seated and several veterans came filing in, one by one, going up to the casket and slowly and deliberately saluting him and the flag that remained at his shoulder.  When the tribute and service was over and everyone had passed by the casket to pay their final respects, they went to their cars to wait for the casket to be loaded into the hearse.  When the last person had left the chapel, the large spray of beautiful flowers that had adorned the top of the casket was removed by funeral home staff, the flag was again unfolded, and this time it was carefully draped so that it covered the entire casket that had been slowly and ceremonially closed.  When the flag-draped casket appeared as the pallbearers carried it from the funeral home to the hearse, there was total silence, and the sight once again prompted many tears.

The procession slowly made its way to the little country cemetery a few miles outside of town and when it arrived at its destination, at the entrance gate there stood a man in uniform, saluting the hearse as it approached.  After the vehicle came to a stop, he remained at attention and he saluted again as the casket was removed from the vehicle and the pallbearers carried it to the grave site, led by the minister and the funeral director.  A bugler in uniform, standing in the distance, also stood at attention and saluted until the casket was in place, as did another man in uniform who had been waiting near the tent that covered the open grave.

The pallbearers carefully placed the flag-draped casket on top of the supports that would hold it over the grave, the family members were seated in chairs lined up beside the casket, and remaining family and friends gathered closely around as the minister stood at the end of the casket and prepared to speak.  When the committal service and prayer had ended, the bugler played the mournful "Taps", and the soldiers began the ritual of removing the flag and folding it, saluting at the appropriate times.  During this procedure, no one had to be asked to keep quiet; it was so silent, the only sounds were the birds singing and the swish of the material as it was being crisply and deliberately folded into its final triangular shape once more.  The task was complete and one soldier saluted and then walked away.  The one left holding the flag turned sharply around to face the family sitting on the chairs beneath the tent, then he knelt down directly in front of a daughter.  As he spoke to her, expressing gratitude and appreciation for her father's service to his country, presenting the flag to her,  it was as if everyone there were holding their breath, and then there was another sudden release of tears and emotion as the woman thanked him, clutching the flag to her breast as the soldier stood up straight and gave his salute...for the last time....

Mere words are not enough to express my gratitude to all the men and women who have sacrificed and faithfully served (and continue to serve) this country to preserve the freedoms that I often take for granted. I know many of them have experiences they have shared with no one except their God - horrible visions of friends killed; the pain and guilt from having to take another human's life; personal physical and emotional pain they themselves have endured; nightmares that have no end; sometimes the heartache of being deserted by their own family and friends...many things they have carried to their own grave in silence. 

I think that is why I become so emotional every time I see that flag-draped casket, then watch as that precious symbol is folded and presented in a most solemn and dignified manner to a surviving family member...I feel as if my heart will burst because of everything that this custom and ceremonial ritual represents. 

God bless every U.S. veteran and every person currently serving...God bless their families...and God bless the USA!

( © Post and photos by C.J. - please do not copy)