On the one hand, all that rigid precision of movements kinda creeps me out - I mean, from the "half time" step march, to the "present arms' and the snap of rifles, to the unfolding and folding of the flag, and including the scripted words said to the bereaved as the precisely folded flag is handed to them - the ritual never changes. Not even an iota.
In some ways, the boys in the military are more 'catholic' than the boys in Rome.
On the other hand, I'm glad that our government and the various veterans organizations have made provisions to recognize and honor the sacrifice of the former soldier who served in one of the branches of the military.
Part of my ambivalence comes, in part, because it's easier to show up at a funeral than to provide adequate care for veterans. Especially those whose scars are not visible. Those with PTSD who 'self-medicate' at the bar of AMVETs or VFW halls that seem to proliferate in rural areas where I live (there are three of these places within a 10 mile radius of my home - 2 within less than 5 miles). Or, those who move on to stronger drugs and alienate their families, or can't keep a steady job or keep a roof over their heads or, as in one case in NYC, shoes on their feet.
I sure wish the government would show up for them. You know. While they're alive. And, need stuff. Like health care and mental health care and social services.
I'm probably most ambivalent about the 21-Gun Salute. I mean, I'm not that dense. I get it. Veterans are about wars and wars are about guns.
There's just something kinda creepy about an honor guard made up mostly of old, retired soldiers who half-step march their way outside and fire off their pop guns. I was especially surprised when the leader of the honor guard gathered up the spent shells and presented them to the family.
Right. Just what I want to take home from my loved one's funeral: bullet casings.
To each his own, I suppose.
There are two things, however, that are always deeply moving to me. The first is the folding of the flag. The flag often drapes the casket and then is folded. If there is no casket - if the body has been cremated and there's an urn - the soldiers unfold the flag, snap it out to its full length, and then refolded precisely 13 times.
I always thought it was symbolic of the 13 original states in America but, turns out, each fold has its own meaning. One of the men from the honor guard was able to rattle them off for me, in proper order. He also told me that the folded triangle shape serves to remind us of the hats worn by the soldiers who served under General Washington and the seamen who served under Admiral John Paul Jones - the original "defenders of freedom".
And, here I thought it was folded into a triangle so it could fit into those triangle glass cases.
No matter. There is something deeply moving to see a young soldier gently and tenderly hand over the folded flag to the grieving family. I'm not certain why, exactly, but it always makes me tearful.
And then, of course, there's taps. These days, it's hard to find someone who plays the bugle who will come out to the graveside service of an old, retired veteran, so they have it on tape. Or, iPod. It's a recording, anyway, that gets amplified as if the bugle were right in the room.
It's a very haunting melody that finds its way around around one's heart strings and gently tugs until tears appear.
Here's the thing: Presiding at military funerals has emboldened me to be less apologetic about the church's rituals and liturgies. I preside at lots of Christian but non-Episcopalian funerals and I've always been reticent about doing things like blessing the urn or casket with holy water, or saying 'traditional prayers' or sprinkling the casket with dirt and saying, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
I'm not rigid about it, but I have come to understand that those symbols and rituals and liturgies bring great comfort to those who mourn. No, it may not come from their particular tradition, and - don't kid yourself - there are as many of the older generation who are as much a part of the growing demographic of the "Nones" as there are young people.
And yet, people seem to know intuitively what to expect at a funeral or memorial service. They know it as well as they expect a wedding ceremony to begin, "Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God........".
They might not darken the doors of a church at any other time of the year, but when they step through those doors for a wedding or a funeral, they have a basic sense about what is going to happen and how its going to go and what words are going to be said. The words may not be exactly the same, but the 'shape of the liturgy' stays pretty consistent.
And, they take great comfort in and from it all.
I'm thankful for the military honor guard for helping me remember what I learned so many years ago in seminary but had forgotten: We humans are ritualistic creatures who simultaneously embrace and rebel against the traditions of our human institutions.
Grief can intensify either feeling of embrace or rejection, or it can push us to a sense of ambivalence and lead us to a sense of apathy.
If the church as an institution ceased to exist tomorrow, our need for ritual and tradition and liturgy would go on. We'd just make up new stuff that will probably look and sound a lot like what we've always done.
Because that's just how human beings are set up.
Sometimes, it takes watching a rigid, militaristic ritual to remind you of the baseline, foundational importance which ritual and tradition capture: Memory.
Jesus knew that. That's why he instituted a simple meal - the common occurrence of a meal and the common elements of that meal - and said, "Do this in remembrance of me."
Bread and wine beat bugles and flags, hands down in my book, but their real power is not in the elements themselves but, rather, in the memory - or memories - they provoke.
One of the greatest balms to sooth the sting of death is memory.
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem by the same name:
- I hold it true, whate'er befall;
- I feel it when I sorrow most;
- 'Tis better to have loved and lost
- Than never to have loved at all.