Funeral and Burial Benefits for Service Members

Officers 21 gun salute

The Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs ensure that service members who die on active duty receive recognition and dignified burial services. Furthermore, survivors are offered care and help.

In general, any service member discharged under conditions other than dishonorable is eligible to receive Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs funeral and burial benefits. It is Department of Defense policy that all service members’ remains are handled with the utmost dignity and care.

The initial services provided by the Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs for active-duty deaths include:

  • Recovery, evacuation and initial identification of remains
  • Return of personal effects. A legal representative of the service member’s estate is entitled to the personal effects; if no such person is identified, the primary next of kin is entitled to them and decides where they will be shipped or stored.
  • Transportation of the deceased service member’s remains to the burial site
  • Temporary interment, only if absolutely necessary
  • Transportation of immediate family members to the burial site
  • Preparation and casketing of the service member
  • When eligible, burial in a gravesite in a national or private cemetery with available space; cremated remains are buried or inurned, (placed into urns), in cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains.

Additional services that may be available include:

  • Military funeral honors consist of, at minimum, military representation, (at least two service members, including one representative of the deceased veteran’s parent service), ceremonial folding and presentation of the American flag to the next of kin and the playing of Taps. Additional elements such as a firing party or color guard may also be included.
  • Burial flags, provided for free, drape the casket or urn of a service member who served honorably in the military.
  • Lapel Buttons are a symbol of our appreciation of service members’ tremendous sacrifice to country and service, and of the families of these brave men and women. The Gold Star Lapel Button is provided to the next of kin of service members who lost their lives while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force. The Next of Kin Lapel Button is provided to the families of service members who lost their lives while on active duty or while serving in a drill status as a member of the National Guard or reserves.
  • Presidential Memorial Certificate — Provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Presidential Memorial Certificate is a gold-embossed paper certificate available to next of kin and loved ones of deceased service members It is signed by the current president of the United States to honor the memory of honorably discharged veterans.
  • Government-furnished gravesite — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ burial services for eligible veterans include a gravesite at any Department of Veterans Affairs national cemetery, based on space.
  • Government-furnished headstones and markers — The Department of Veterans Affairs will furnish a free government headstone or marker for the grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world. Headstones and markers are also available for eligible spouses and dependents of veterans in a national, military installation or state veteran cemetery.

Military Funeral Honors Eligibility

Air Force honor guard performs military honors service.

Military funeral honors are provided to recognize the sacrifice and contributions of our nation’s veterans. The following are eligible to receive military funeral honors:

  • Military members who died while on active duty
  • Veterans who served in the active military, naval, or air service and were discharged or released from that service by means of an “honorable” or “under honorable conditions” discharge
  • Members or former members of the selected reserves and were discharged or released from service by means of an “honorable” or “under honorable conditions” discharge

Understanding Military Funeral Honors and Eligibility

Providing military funeral honors is the nation’s way of showing gratitude and paying final tribute to a veteran’s honorable military service. Review the MilLife Learning eTutorial to better understand the Military Funeral Honors program and eligibility.

Other eligible beneficiaries include:

  • Members of the Commissioned Officers Corps of the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Certain civilian or contractual groups who have been given active-duty determinations may also be eligible for funeral honors, as they may have been named active-duty designees for the military, Navy or Air Force services

The following persons are not eligible for military funeral honors:

  • Individuals separated from the armed forces under dishonorable conditions or those who have been barred from veteran’s benefits
  • Those who have been convicted of a federal or state capital crime
  • A person found to have committed a federal or state capital crime but has not been convicted of such crime by reason of such person not available for trial due to their death or flight to avoid prosecution
  • A person convicted of a federal or state crime causing the person to be a Tier III sex offender
  • A veteran or service member or member of a Reserve Component when the circumstances surrounding the person’s death or other circumstances as specified by the secretary of the military department would bring discredit upon the person’s military service or former military service
  • Anyone who was ordered to report to an induction station but was not actually inducted into military service

To establish a veteran’s eligibility for military funeral honors, a DD Form 214: Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty or any discharge document showing honorable service is required. The DD Form 214 may be obtained by using the online order form or completing a Standard Form 180

For all inquiries regarding military funeral honors please contact the appropriate military funeral honors coordinator listed in the Military Funeral Honors Directory.

What to Expect During Military Funeral Honors

Army general gives burial flag to surviving spouse during her husband’s funeral.

From the folding of the flag to the sounding of Taps, here is a guide to what you can expect during military funeral honors.

The Military Funeral Honors Program includes traditions, within the funeral honors, intended to express deep gratitude for those who have served our nation.

To receive military funeral honors you must:

  • Provide at least two-days notification. The military services need the time to organize the resources for a military funeral honors detail.
  • Request military funeral honors through the eligible veteran’s funeral director/planner or funeral honors coordinator.

Understanding Military Funeral Honors and Eligibility

Providing military funeral honors is the nation’s way of showing gratitude and paying final tribute to a veteran’s honorable military service. Review the MilLife Learning eTutorial to better understand the Military Funeral Honors Program and eligibility.

The Sounding of Taps, Folding of the Flag and More

By law, military units are required to provide, at a minimum, a two-person uniformed detail to present the core elements of the funeral honors ceremony. The core elements include the playing of Taps and the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag. The veteran’s service uniformed representative will present the flag.

Taps and the ceremonial bugle: The version of Taps we know today was officially recognized by the U.S. Army in 1874. Beginning in 1891, the playing of Taps became standard at military funeral ceremonies and was legislated in 2013 as the “National Song of Military Remembrance.” The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2000 directed the playing of Taps at veterans’ military funerals. Although a live bugler is preferred, a ceremonial bugle or a high-quality recording on a stereo player may be used. (A ceremonial budge is an electronic device that fits directly inside the bell portion of a bugle and contains a recording of Taps.)

Flag presentation protocol and flag folding: The U.S. flag honors the memory of a service member or veteran’s service to our country. The ceremonial folding and presentation of the flag is a moving tribute of lasting importance to our service members, veterans and their families.

The flag is draped on a closed casket so the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. When an urn is used, the flag is already in a military fold. The lead body bearer carries the folded flag to the right of the urn. Once the urn comes to rest, the body bearers unfold the flag and hold it at the pall over the cremains. The remainder of the ceremony is conducted in the same manner as casketed remains.

After Taps is played, the flag is carefully folded into the symbolic tricorn shape. A properly proportioned flag will fold 13 times on the triangles, representing the 13 original colonies. The folded flag is emblematic of the tricorn hat worn by the patriots of the American Revolution. When folded, no red or white stripe is to be evident, leaving only the blue field with stars.

It is then presented as a keepsake to the next of kin or a close friend or associate of the deceased veteran if there is no next of kin.

The flag presentation protocol is as follows:

  • Stand facing the flag recipient and hold the folded flag waist high with the straight edge facing the recipient.
  • Lean toward the flag recipient and solemnly present the flag to the recipient.

Effective April 17, 2012, the Department of Defense standardized the flag presentation language for military funeral honors ceremonies. The following words, mandated by the DOD, will be used when presenting the American flag during the funeral service:

“On behalf of the President of the United States, (the United States Army; the United States Marine Corps; the United States Navy; the United States Air Force or the United States Coast Guard), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Burial flag: To get a burial flag, complete a VA Form 27-2008, “Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes,” and take it to your funeral director, any VA regional office, or a post office. (Call ahead to make sure your local post office has burial flags.)

  • Burial flags are provided at no cost.
  • The flag will be presented to the veteran’s next of kin. If no claim is made for the flag by the next of kin, it may be given, upon request, to a close friend or associate of the deceased veteran.
  • Additional information can be obtained from the VA’s website.

Additional funeral honors elements: Depending on available resources and personnel, other elements may be added to the minimum two-person uniformed detail. These elements may include a gun salute, color guard, pallbearers, a caisson and a military flyover. Trained volunteers through the Authorized Provider Partnership Program and veteran services organizations may augment the two-person service detail as members of the firing party or color guard. They can also serve as pallbearers and assist in other elements of the process.

  • Military flyovers: Military flyovers are not part of the mandated funeral honors ceremony as required by Title 10, Section 1491 United States Code, but can be arranged if supporting personnel and aircraft are available. It should be noted that requests for a military flyover are simply that, requests. Approval for such requests must go through an administrative process within each military service. Approval is based on many factors, including the eligibility of the deceased, the availability of personnel and aircraft, the location of the funeral service, the time and date of the funeral, and weather conditions.
  • Burial at sea: Burial at sea is a means of final disposition of cremated or casketed remains that is performed on U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels. (The Coast Guard will not normally provide burial at sea for casketed remains). Family members are not routinely authorized to be present, especially for the Navy, as the committal ceremony is performed while the ship is deployed. The commanding officer of the ship assigned to perform the ceremony will notify the family of the date, time, and longitude and latitude once the committal service has been completed. For additional information concerning eligibility and procedures, please refer to Navy Personnel Command or the Coast Guard.

These details of military funeral honors are intended to honor the service member or veteran’s commitment and sacrifice to their country and provide comfort and gratitude to their families.

Questions? You can ask your military funeral honors coordinator or call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647. OCONUS/International? Click here for calling options.

Taps and the Gun Salute: The History

Female Airman plays Taps with a bugle during a U.S. Air Force funeral.

The U.S. military has many ways to show respect, such as a small arms salute or a hand salute. Two important military traditions are the playing of Taps to honor service members who have passed away and a gun salute. The following is a brief history of how these important traditions came to be.

History of Taps

Of all the military bugle calls, perhaps none is so easily recognized or more apt to render emotion than Taps. It’s part of our culture and is played at the completion of a military funeral ceremony or memorial service and sounded every evening as the final call for lights out on military installations.

It is even played and sung at summer camps and on a variety of other occasions. In 2013, Taps was designated by Congress as the national “Song of Remembrance,” under Public Law 112-239, Section 596.

Until the Civil War, the traditional call at day’s end was a tune borrowed from the French, called “Lights Out.”

But in July 1862, following the last of the bloody Seven Days Battles, hard on the loss of 600 men and wounded himself, Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield called the brigade bugler to his tent. He thought “Lights Out” was too formal, but wished to honor his men.

Oliver Wilcox Norton, the bugler, told the story: “…showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, (he) asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written.

“He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call.

“The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade. The next day, I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music, which I gladly furnished. The call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac.”

The more emotive and powerful Taps was soon adopted throughout the military. In 1874, it was officially recognized by the U.S. Army. It became standard at military funeral ceremonies in 1891.

There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.

─ From an article by Master Sgt. Jari A. Villanueva, USAF

For additional information on the history of Taps, see https://tapsbugler.com/an-excerpt-from-twenty-four-notes-that-tap-deep-emotions-the-story-of-americas-most-famous-bugle-call/.

The History of the Gun Salute

A 21-gun salute is the highest customary gun salute that is performed by the firing of cannons or artillery as a military honor. The custom stems from naval tradition, in which a warship would fire its cannons harmlessly out to sea until all ammunition was spent to show that it was disarmed, signifying the lack of hostile intent.

As naval customs evolved, 21 guns came to be reserved for United States presidents and ex-presidents, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation and members of a reigning royal family. The number of guns decrease with the rank of the recipient of the honor.

The act of demonstrating peaceful intentions by placing weapons in a position that renders them ineffective may be traced to early warriors. This custom became universal and is carried out depending on the weapon used. For example, a North African tribe trailed the points of its spears on the ground to indicate that its members did not mean to be hostile.

In effect, the person who performed the salute placed himself in the power of the person he was saluting. Eventually, this practice became honorary and ceremonial as well as practical. Swords were pointed downward, headdresses were removed and sails lowered.

Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and the return of salutes. Britain, in her role as the most powerful nation on the seas in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first. And for a time, monarchies received more guns than republics.

Eventually, by agreement, the International Salute was established at 21 guns. The United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.

The gun-salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the National Salute was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union ─ 17 at the time.

This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations on Independence Day. The president also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

In 1841, the Presidential Salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the National Salute as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the Salute to the Union, equal to the number of states.

Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral for a president, ex-president or president-elect.

The Air Force does not have saluting cannons. It provides “honors cordons” in place of a 21-gun salute. The number of persons in the honor cordon from 21 to nine indicates the type of honors being accorded.

People commonly mistake the three rifle volleys, an element of military funeral honors, as a 21-gun salute.

The firing of three rifle volleys, or rounds, over the graves of deceased armed forces members and political leaders, can be traced to the European dynastic wars, when fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded.

Once an area was cleared of casualties, three volleys were sent into the air as a signal that the dead were cleared and properly cared for and that fighting could resume. At a military funeral today, a rifle team typically consisting of seven service members firing three volleys from rifles may be provided.

It is not known why the number 21 was chosen for national salutes.

In ancient cultures, numerology ─ the study of numbers ─ developed symbolism behind most numbers. These cultures believed the number seven to be sacred and, therefore, it is believed, multiples of seven would be looked upon favorably (hence, the 21-gun salute).

Other gun salutes range from five to 21 guns by increments of two and are prescribed in accordance with the occasion and level of importance of those honored.

It is generally believed that gun salutes are set off in odd numbers because, according to an old naval superstition, even numbers are unlucky.

For additional information on the history of the gun salute, visit the U.S. Army Center of Military History.