Military Funerals

Military Funerals

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'


The basic guidance on the military funeral is AFI 34-501. Call on the Mortuary Affairs Officer at your local Military Personnel Flight (MPF) for further guidance and clarification.

The Air Force considers it a privilege to assist in the conduct of military funeral honors for active or retired members and veterans who served honorably in the Air Force. Honors will be furnished consistent with available personnel and resources. Commander at all echelons will place sufficient emphasis on this program to make sure that honors are properly rendered in every instance.


Funeral services of great magnificence evolved as custom (from what is known about early Christian mourning) in the 16th century. To this day, no religious ceremonies are conducted with more pomp than those intended to commemorate the departed.

The funeral of soldiers, more than any other ceremony, has followed an old pattern as the living honor the dead.

The first general mourning proclaimed in America was on the death of Benjamin Franklin in 1791 and the next on the death of George Washington in 1799. the deep and widespread grief occasioned by the death of the first President assembled a great number of people for the purpose of paying him a last tribute of respect, and on Wednesday, 18 December 1799, attended by military honors and the simplest but grandest ceremonies of religion, his body was placed in the family vault at Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Several military traditions employed today have been brought forward from the past.
  • Reversed arms, displayed by one opponent on the battlefield, signaled that a truce was requested so that the dead and wounded could be carried off and the dead buried.
  • Today's customary three volleys fired over a grave probably originated as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman funeral rites of casting dirt three times on the coffin constituted the "burial." It was customary among the Romans to call the dead three times by name, which ended the funeral ceremony, after which the friends and relatives of the deceased pronounced the word "vale" (farewell) three times as they departed from the grave side.

Responsibility for Providing Funeral Honors

Military Honors Assignments by ZIP code (this document is prepared and distributed by HQ AFPC/MPCCM). Each base is responsible for furnishing requested funeral honors support within it's assigned ZIP code (geographic) areas identified in the current edition of this special document.

Members of the base funeral ceremonial team are trained to render this final military tribute in the required proficient, professional military manner. On request of the decedent's next of kin or his or her authorized representative, the commander of an Air Force base manned by active duty personnel may furnish the standard Air Force military funeral honors to eligible personnel as specified in AFI 34-501.

Arranging the Military Honors

The wishes of the next of kin regarding the type and extent of honors to be furnished will be paramount, limited only by the capabilities of the activity rendering the honors and the principles of good taste. Immediately after the request to furnish military honors is received, the base Mortuary Officer or alternate obtains all the pertinent information and makes appropriate preliminary arrangements. Final arrangements are made when notification of shipment of the remains to final destination is received from the shipping installation. The Mortuary Officer or alternate assists the Honor Guard Commander or OIC, as appropriate, with the final arrangements and specific honors to be furnished.

Air Force Funeral Honor Guard Policy

Air Force Honor Guard policy (from AFI 34-503, USAF Base Honor Guard Program and AFI 34-242, Mortuary Affairs Program) sets the following standards for funeral honor guard composition:

  • Active duty members and Medal of Honor recipients: 6 pallbearers, 7 firing party, 1 bugler, 4 color guard, 1 OIC/NCOIC, for a total of 19.
  • Retired Air Force members: 7 pallbearers/firing party (dual function), 1 bugler, 1 OIC/NCOIC, for a total of 9.
  • Air Force veterans: 1 Air Force member to attend funeral and present the flag if requested by the next-of-kin. Requests for honors for other Service members are referred to the parent Service of the deceased.
Installation commanders have the authority to provide reduced honors to retirees (with MAJCOM concurrence) and to deny honors for veterans when resources are not available. At a minimum, installations must provide an Air Force representative to present the flag to the next of kin of retired Air Force members.

Installation commanders are expected to meet these standards. As an exception to policy, however, commanders may exceed these standards for retirees and veterans and provide either the full 19-person detail (for AF retirees) or the 9-person team (for veterans) if resources permit but may do so only if this extended level of support can be provided on a continuing basis.

Honor guard teams of other than the standard 19, 9, or 1 person configuration are not recommended.

Interment Flags

The Mortuary Officer of the base providing the military honors will furnish no additional interment flags for presentation without prior approval from HQ AFPC. The Mortuary Officer of the shipping installation provides the escort with the authorized and required number of flags and cases prior to the shipment of the remains.

Interment flags for retired and veteran personnel are not furnished by the Air Force. Such flags (one only per deceased) are obtained by the local funeral director engaged by the next of kin according to Veterans Administration directives and procedures for CONUS burial. For retired and veteran personnel, who die in an overseas area, the next of kin desiring a flag should be instructed to contact the nearest American Consulate Veteran Affairs Section for assistance.

Participating Military Personnel
  • Air Force Chaplain (when requested by the next of kin).
  • Pallbearers (six airmen) - If the deceased was a member of the local military organization Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve Unit, the family may desire to select honorary pallbearers from that organization.
  • Troop Escort - Usually the escort consists of troops in numbers suitable to the rank of the deceased, a firing party, and a bugler. When the band is provided for the funeral, the bugler is usually part of that formation. Size of the escort may vary from a flight to squadron depending upon the grade of the deceased. A flight for funeral purposes will consist of not less than 8 and not usually more than 30 airmen. Commanders may authorize more than 30 airmen when considered appropriate.
  • Firing Party - The firing party will consist of at least 7 airmen armed with the M-1 or M-16 rifle and an NCOIC. The firing party ordinarily is a part of the troop escort. However, the firing party may participate in the ceremony as a separate element.
  • Ordinarily a bugler is part of the troop escort or band. A bugler may be hired locally.
  • As a last resort, a tape recorder may be used for sounding Taps. When used, the recorder should be out of sight of the funeral party.
  • Color Guard - A color guard will be furnished only upon request of the next of kin. The color guard will carry both the US Organizational Flag and the Air Force Organizational Flag (provisional). The color guard will consist of 2 noncommissioned officers as flag bearers and 2 airmen guards (see AFMAN 36-2203).
  • Band.

Other Participating Personnel

  • Funeral director or government cemetery representative or both.
  • Honorary pallbearers - May be either military or civilian but will be included in funeral ceremony only at the specific request and invitation of the family.
  • Family.
Personal Salutes And Honors
  • The Air Force general officers are entitled to "Ruffles and Flourishes" and music.
  • Ruffles and flourishes and music will be rendered at the chapel before the casket is removed from the hearse and at the graveside before the casket is removed from the hearse.
  • The appropriate general officer's flag will be borne by an airman bearer.


Flyovers of funeral ceremonies by Air Force aircraft may be appropriate in certain instances. Such requests will be considered only when initiated by the next of kin. If flown, the formation will be a 3- or 4- ship fingertip formation with missing man. Such a request may be approved however, only when the mission can be accomplished in conjunction with a formation training flight.

A flyover may be authorized for the funerals of dignitaries of the armed forces and the Federal Government and for funerals of military persons who held an aeronautical rating (or were taking a course of instruction leading to such a rating), and who died while on active duty including Reserve or National Guard training.

Numerous approvals are required for flyovers, so contact the Mortuary Affairs office for details.

When aviation participates in a military funeral, it is timed so that the aircraft appear over the procession.

Work with the Mortuary Affairs office and local honor guard commander to prepare a plan for the ceremony. It should as a minimum prescribe:
  • Position for each element to take.
  • Route of march.
  • Detailed description of each function to be performed.
Types of Funeral Ceremonies

Because so many variations of the basic ceremony are possible, no one ceremony can be prescribed that will be appropriate of all military funerals.

The need for variation in ceremonies may be dictated by a number of factors. The physical layout of the area where the funeral is to take place, the people and equipment available or required, and the specific desires of the next of kin will determine the extent to which each ceremony must be modified. For example, the military phase of the chapel service must be altered or eliminated if there is insufficient space at the front of the chapel. If the chapel and grave site adjoin, the funeral procession would not be appropriate. Ensure the honors are always properly rendered by trained personnel in the prescribed proficient military manner.

Different ceremonies for a variety of situations are briefly described below and outline in detail in the following paragraphs:
  • Complete Air Force Funeral - Nearly all the traditions and ceremonies are provided for in the complete Air Force funeral.
  • Complete Ceremony less Chapel Service - This type service is conducted when the next of kin has a private non-military chapel service before the actual interment.
  • Graveside Service - The graveside service is conducted when the next of kin does not want the chapel service.
  • Standard Air Force Funeral - This is a distinct and simplified chapel or graveside ceremony or both with a limited number of military personnel participating.
  • Ceremonies when Remains are to be Cremated - The usual military funeral ceremony must be modified when remains are cremated. The extent of modification depends on whether the ceremony is conducted before or after cremation.
  • Ceremony Prior to Shipment of Remains to Place of Interment - When remains are shipped from an installation to some other place for disposition or interment, it may be desirable to conduct a military funeral ceremony prior to shipment.
  • Memorial Service - A service in honor of a deceased person.
Refer to AFI 34-501 for details on the conduct of the various types of ceremonies.

The family or representative of the deceased may request fraternal or patriotic organizations, of which the deceased was a member, to take part in the funeral service. With immediate family approval, fraternal or patriotic organizations may conduct graveside services at the conclusion of the military portion of the ceremony, signified by the flag presentation to the next of kin and escort departure from the ceremony. The time and other pertinent details of its services will be coordinated between the fraternal or patriotic organization representative and the officer-in-charge of the funeral.

Use of the Flag

The interment flag drapes the decedent's casket throughout the service. Immediately after the sounding of Taps, the pallbearers fold the flag in the manner prescribed in AFI 34-501.

The flag may be presented to the next of kin by the escort who accompanies the remains of an active duty member, the officiating chaplain, or the funeral ceremonial team OIC or NCOIC. Regardless of who presents it to the next of kin, pre-determine how to transfer the flag from the last pallbearer, at the head end of the casket, to the person who will present it to the next of kin.

There may be more than one flag presented at the conclusion of the interment service, as certain primary and secondary next of kin of deceased active duty members are entitled to receive an interment flag. Regardless of the number of authorized flags presented, they are presented uncased and the case is given to the recipient immediately after presenting the flag. If the weather is inclement, present cased flags to the recipients to preclude exposure of the flags to the elements.

Mourning Bands

Air Force members participating in a military funeral except members of the troop escort are not permitted to wear mourning bands. Members of the troop escort may wear them if prescribed by the MAJCOM commander concerned. MAJCOM commanders will not re-delegate the authority to prescribe the wearing of mourning bands below the numbered Air Force level.

Air Force members attending a military funeral, but not participating, may wear the mourning band if they desire.

The mourning band consists of a straight band of black crepe or plain black cloth 4 inches wide. It is worn around the left sleeve above the elbow.


The chaplain takes his position in front of the chapel before the arrival of the remains. He precedes the casket when it is carried from the hearse into the chapel and from the chapel to the hearse. While the remains are being placed in the hearse, he stands at the rear and to the side facing the hearse. When wearing vestments, the chaplain may, at his or her discretion proceed from the chancel to the sacristy (vestry) at the conclusion of the chapel service and divest, joining the procession before it moves from the chapel. The chaplain then precedes the hearse to the graveside and precedes the casket to the grave.

Family Members

The family arrives at the chapel before the hearse and is seated in the right front pews of the chapel.

When the chapel service is over, family members follow the casket down the aisle until they reach the vestibule of the chapel, where they wait until the casket is carried outside and placed in the hearse.

When the procession is ready to form, members of the family take their places in the processions immediately behind the pallbearers.

When the procession arrives at the graveside, the members of the family wait in their cars until the funeral director opens the car door to escort them to the grave site. This is necessary to allow the band, escort, and colors to take their positions at the grave, and other behind the family to park their cars and come forward.

The members of the family are escorted to their positions for the funeral service at the side of the grave by the funeral directors.

When the graveside ceremony is completed, the interment flag is presented to the next of kin entitled to direct disposition of the remains.


Military personnel in uniform attending a funeral in an individual capacity face the casket and execute the hand salute at all times when the casket is being carried by the pallbearers, during the firing of the volleys and the sounding of Taps. Military personnel in civilian clothes stand at attention and hold the headdress over the left breast whenever those in uniform salute. Female personnel or those people without headdress simply stand at attention. During the prayers, all people bow their heads.

Preliminary Arrangements

The officer in charge of a military funeral, the commander of the escort, the funeral director, and the superintendent of the cemetery or his representative visit the places involved and make careful arrangements before the time set for the funeral. They determine the positions at the grave for the various elements of the funeral and make arrangements for traffic control.

Floral Tributes

In the absence of the chaplain, the chaplain's assistant helps the funeral director in arranging all floral tributes in the chapel. The commanding officer or his representative coordinates with the funeral director the necessary transportation for prompt transfer of floral tributes from the chapel to the gravesite. The vehicle bearing the floral tributes is loaded promptly at the conclusion of the chapel service. It precedes the funeral procession, moving as rapidly as practicable to the site of the grave. The funeral procession does not move from the chapel until the vehicle carrying the floral tributes has cleared the escort.

The funeral director or the cemetery representative is responsible for removing cards and making a record that gives a brief description of the floral piece pertaining to each card. After completion of the funeral services, the cards and records are turned over to a member of the family of the deceased.

Funerals Off Post

The commander, upon request, provides a funeral detail for the deceased active duty or retired personnel when the burial is to take place in a civilian or national cemetery off the installation (for veteran funerals see AR 600-25). The detail is normally composed as follows:
  • Officer in charge or noncommissioned officer in charge.
  • Six active pallbearers.
  • Firing party.
  • Bugler.
Note: When military pallbearers are not available, the firing party will fold the flag.

The arrangements for the funeral are supervised by the survivor assistance officer. The officer in charge or noncommissioned officer in charge of the funeral detail coordinates all aspects of the ceremonies with this officer.

Upon arrival at the city where the funeral is to be conducted, the officer in charge or noncommissioned officer in charge meets the survivor assistance officer and ascertains the sequence of the ceremony. The normal sequence of events is as follows:
  • At the funeral home, on the order of the funeral director, the pallbearers move the casket to the hearse. The pallbearers should be certain to carry the casket feet first and level at all times
  • At the church:
    • The active pallbearers carry the casket from the hearse into the chapel.
    • When the casket has been placed on the church truck, two pallbearers push the truck to the front of the church while the other pallbearers move to the vestibule and await the termination of the church service. If there is no church truck, the pallbearers carry the casket to the front of the church as instructed by the funeral director or minister concerned. If desired by the family, the active pallbearers may occupy the pews (seats) to the left front of the church.
    • After the church service, the pallbearers, under the direction of the funeral director, move the casket to the hearse. When the casket has been placed in the hearse, the pallbearers enter their vehicles.
  • At the cemetery:
    • The officer in charge or a designated individual commands the prepositioned firing party and bugler to Detail, ATTENTION and Present, ARMS as soon as the casket is moved from the hearse. The command Order, ARMS is given when the casket reaches the grave.
    • The pallbearers carry the casket, feet first and level, to the grave. On reaching the grave, the casket is placed on the lowering device. The pallbearers raise the flag from the casket and hold it in a horizontal position, waist high, until the conclusion of "Taps."
Rules for Ceremonial Firing

For ceremonial firing, the firing party consists of not more than eight riflemen and not less than 5 with one noncommissioned officer in charge (see 'Till Wheels Are Up! Chap 17, figure 21-1).

The firing party is normally pre-positioned at the gravesite and facing in the direction that allows it to fire directly over the grave. However, care should be taken to ensure that rifles are fired at a 45-degree angle from the horizontal.

To load:
  • Magazines or clips are loaded with three rounds and blank adapters are attached before forming the firing party
  • At the conclusion of the religious services or on the escort commander's command, the noncommissioned officer in charge commands With blank ammunition, LOAD. At the command LOAD, each rifleman executes port arms, faces to the half right, and moves this right foot 10 inches to the right to a position that gives him a firm, steady stance. He then chambers a round, places the weapon in the safe position, and resumes port arms.
To fire by volley:
  • When the riflemen have completed the movements and the weapons are locked, the commands are Ready, Aim, Fire. At the command Ready, each rifleman moves the safety to the fire position. On the command Aim, the rifle is shouldered with both hands with the muzzle to the front at an angle of 45 degrees from the horizontal. On the command of execution Fire, the trigger is squeezed quickly, and the weapon is immediately returned to port arms.
  • To continue the firing with weapons that function automatically (blank adapter), the commands Aim and Fire are given and executed as previously prescribed. To continue firing with weapons that must be manually operated to chamber another round (without blank adapters), the commands Ready, Aim, Fire are given. On the command Ready, each rifleman manually chambers the next round. The commands Aim and Fire are then given and executed as previously prescribed.
  • When the third round has been fired and the rifleman have resumed port arms, the noncommissioned officer in charge commands Cease Firing. The riflemen immediately place their weapon on safe, assume the position of attention (at port arms), and face to half left. From this position, the firing party is commanded to Present arms before playing of "Taps." After "Taps," they are commanded to order arms. The noncommissioned officer in charge executes a right (left) face and remains at attention until the flag has been folded and saluted by the officer in charge or noncommissioned officer in charge of the funeral detail. At this time, the firing party noncommissioned officer in charge executes a right (left) face and commands Right (Left) Face; Port, Arms; and Forward, March. The weapons are unloaded and cleared as soon as possible after leaving the gravesite.