When one thinks about military funerals, you probably think immediately of decorative uniforms, folded flags, firing rifles, and sounding trumpets. But have you ever wondered how these iconic traditions came to be? Or how they may differ around the world? Military funerals are traditional, highly ritualized, and have a general air of formality, honour, and respect for the deceased. Here is a quick look at some of the most famous and fascinating military funeral traditions across the globe:
Military Funerals Around the World
As a Commonwealth country, many of Canada’s traditions were originally practiced in the United Kingdom. The Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (referring to the regular field artillery unites of the Canadian Army) use a 25 pound gun and cart as the funeral vehicle. Drums are played during the funeral procession, and the medals, headdress, and insignia of the deceased are carried on a velvet cushion. Volleys (from guns or canons) are fired over the grave of the deceased. Finally, as the body is interred, a bugle will play the “Last Post”: a traditional British custom to commemorate the deceased during wartime, which is also heard on Remembrance Day.
The United Kingdom
Military funeral traditions in The United Kingdom are very similar to those in other commonwealth countries. However, they may differ slightly depending on the location. In Scotland, for example, it is common for bagpipes to be played during the funeral procession, and kilts to be worn. Rifles will be carried upside down, with the butt of the gun towards the ground. Like in Canada, the “Last Post” post may be played on a bugle as the body is interred. It is also accompanied by a short piece called “Rouse”, or “Reveille”, which is also played on the bugle or trumpet.
In Italy, any soldier who dies in combat is given a state funeral: a tradition that is not practiced in many countries, as state funerals tend to be more elaborate than typical military funerals. During the funeral, the coffin is surrounded by six uniformed members of the same Armed Force as the deceased, or members of the Carabinieri (military police). A member of the Italian government is also always present at these funerals. An official commemorative oration is given as well, honouring the deceased and their service.
Indonesian military funerals are usually given for current and past members of the military, or former guerillas. Politicians and members of government may also, in some cases, be given a military funeral. However, it is more common that religious services are held in these cases. Military funeral traditions in Indonesia are somewhat different from those practiced in North America and Europe. A photograph of the deceased is usually carried at the head of the funeral procession, followed by an abundance of flowers. There is no music played during the procession, though some is played during the final honours. Prayers are lead by members of the deceased’s faith, followed by a 21-gun volley salute performed by 7 soldiers.
Chilean military funerals reflect an interesting combination of traditions. This is largely due to the fact that the Chilean military has roots in Prussian military traditions. In Germany, singing the song “Ich ‘hatt einen Kameraden” (“I once had a comrade”) is an integral part of the military funeral tradition. However, in Chile, the Spanish equivalent is sung: “Yo tenia un camarada”. The cart carrying the coffin is usually pulled by a horse, and a bugle sounds the final honours of the ceremony.
The United States
Perhaps the most famous military funeral traditions in the world are those practiced in The United States of America. The United States Army Military District of Washington (MDW) is responsible for organizing and providing military funerals. It is legally mandated that any past or current American soldier is fully entitled to a military funeral should the deceased or their family request it. This means that there will be what is called an honour guard detail assigned to the funeral. An honour guard detail consists of at least two soldiers, one of whom will be from the same unit as the deceased. This detail will also perform the folding flag ceremony, and present the flag to the family of the deceased. A piece called “Taps” will then be played on the bugle following the final honours.