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Folded Flag, Distant Bugle

May 30, 2011

I have often stood with grieving families before a flag-draped coffin that rested above an open grave. A deceased veteran was being honored with a long-standing tradition.  A military detachment from the appropriate branch of service conducted a solemn ceremony at the conclusion of my eulogy, words of committal, and benediction.  The familiar strains of “Taps” were played by a lone bugle in the distance.  White-gloved soldiers, sailors, or marines carefully and reverently removed the flag from the coffin and folded it with precision. The officer in charge knelt before the family and presented the colors.

This year, just in time for Memorial Day, a good friend sent me one interpretation of the meaning behind the honor guard’s meticulous attention to correctly folding the flag of the United States of America. The number of folds, thirteen, may symbolize the original thirteen colonies. To each fold can be ascribed a particular meaning. The following list gives us one way to think about the folding of Old Glory.

  • The first fold of the flag expresses gratitude for the gift of life.
  • The second fold gives thanks for the hope of eternal life.
  • The third fold memorializes all deceased veterans.
  • The fourth fold calls to mind our national motto “In God We Trust.”
  • The fifth fold pays tribute to our country.
  • The sixth fold symbolizes our pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States.
  • The seventh fold pays respect to the Armed Forces.
  • The eighth fold shows our esteem for the veteran whom we remember on this particular day.
  • The ninth fold honors mothers of veterans for their faith, love, and devotion.
  • The tenth fold honors fathers who have instilled in veterans love and loyalty for country.
  • The eleventh fold acknowledges God as sovereign.
  • The twelfth fold recognizes the one God of all people.
  • The thirteenth fold positions the stars uppermost and reminds us of national unity.

After the flag is completely folded it is presented to the family by the ranking officer. He kneels and says, “On behalf of the President of the United States of America and on behalf of a grateful nation, this flag is presented to you in memory and in honor of the service your loved one rendered to this country.”

A United States Marine fighter jet crashed in a wooded area in our county in the early 1980s. A worker at the Red Cross asked if I would conduct an early Sunday morning worship service at the crash site for the marines who had come to investigate the accident. I arrived in a cold rain to find a team of twenty young men and a seasoned colonel gathered. Most of the marines had known the pilot and had volunteered for the assignment. Though they attempted to be stoic, they were clearly grieving.

Following the worship service, the colonel asked if I could return midweek to conduct a memorial service at the site. I invited a trumpeter from a high school marching band to accompany me to the Thursday morning service. The young musician stood concealed in the woods and played “Taps” at the end of the service. Marines wept silently as we listened to the haunting melody.

No one is sure how the custom of playing “Taps” on such occasions began. It did originate during the Civil War at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia.  Beyond those facts, the truth is not known.

The following is a touching and inspiring legend. But, the true story is lost to the mists of time.

In 1862, Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe fought with his men at the Battle of Malvern Hill near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia.  The Confederate and Union Armies were positioned on opposite sides of a narrow strip of land.

During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field.  Not knowing if the fallen man was a Union or Confederate soldier, the Captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach through gunfire, the Captain reached the soldier and dragged him across the line.

When the Captain reached his own command, he discovered that the soldier was dead.

The Captain lit a lantern. The young man was a Confederate soldier. In the dim light, the officer recognized the face of his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out.  Without telling his father, the boy had enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning the heartbroken father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial. The Captain was granted the privilege of a simple funeral to honor his son. He was allowed only one musician.

The Captain chose a bugler.  The father asked the bugler to play a tune he had found scrawled on a piece of paper in the uniform pocket of his dead son.

According to the legend, that was the first time “Taps” was used at military funeral. Within a few months the simple tune was being used by both Union and Confederate forces at the burial of fallen soldiers.

The words are

Day is done. Gone the sun.
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.
Kirk H. Neely
© May 2011
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