Frequent readers will know that my father passed away on Friday, May 8, 2015. On the following Tuesday, my brothers and I met with the funeral director to make the arrangements. There were not that many decisions to make, however, because in the 1990’s, unbeknownst to us at the time, my mother had made all the decisions for us. She and my father had gone to the funeral home and purchased policies to plan and pay for their own funerals. A series of questions had been asked and answered, down to what type of flowers she wanted on her casket, her favorite, the gladiola.
When we met with the funeral director for my dad’s arrangements, we were a bit surprised to learn that he had requested the American flag on his casket instead of flowers. We knew my dad had been in the Army, two hitches as he always said, but somehow it never occurred to me that he had the right to a flag on his casket. I guess I thought that was reserved for soldiers who had died in the line of duty or for fallen presidents. Who can forget the famous photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy accepting the folded flag at the graveside of President John F. Kennedy?
But on that day I learned that my father’s service to his country, albeit outside of combat, earned him the right to have the American flag draped on his casket as well.
There was a small catch, however, the funeral director needed his papers showing honorable discharge and period of service before he could request the flag from the Army, and he needed it by 3:00 pm that afternoon so that the flag would be on hand for my father’s funeral on Thursday. We dashed back to my brother’s home to retrieve the “metal boxes” where my parents kept all of their important papers, the same metal boxes that were the first thing loaded into the trunk of the car when evacuating for hurricanes throughout my entire childhood. Thankfully, they had been loaded into the car on that fateful day when they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, since everything that was not in that car was lost forever.
So, the three of us started going through the two metal file boxes and sure enough, we found my dad’s honorable discharge certificates. We also found some other memorabilia, photographs, trinkets, and souvenirs, including some small tins filled with Indian head nickels my dad had found on the highway in Venice, Louisiana, after Hurricane Camille. After scanning and emailing the certificates to the funeral director, we packed everything back up in the metal boxes and continued with making the arrangements for the funeral Mass.
On Thursday, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, we watched the funeral directors unfold the American flag and drape it on my father’s casket. After the visitation, the flag was removed and refolded so that the pall could be draped over the casket for the Mass. The process was reversed after the Mass, and the flag-draped casket was carried out to the hearse by the pallbearers.
When we arrived at the cemetery, I was again surprised to see two soldiers in dress uniform standing at attention while my father’s casket was unloaded from the hearse, with the American flag secured in place. The pallbearers carried the casket into the mausoleum where my mother was already buried, with my father’s spot waiting there next to her. The funeral director asked which one of us would be receiving the flag. We all agreed that it should go to the middle child, my brother who, for the last few years, had lived with and cared for my father until his death.
As we were following the casket into the mausoleum, I spotted a bugle resting on the ground next to the flower arrangements from the church, which immediately signaled to me the playing of Taps at the end of the service. I am thankful I saw the bugle in advance, because it helped me prepare for the soulful lament that would follow.
We were directed to three chairs next to the casket. At the end of the brief service by the old Irish priest who had been a close friend of my parents, one of the two soldiers played Taps while the other stood at attention at my father’s casket. The two soldiers then removed the flag and in their ultra-precise movements, folded the flag while we waited in solemn silence. One of the soldiers then saluted the flag, and received the folded triangle from the other. He turned crisply and bent down to one knee in front of my brother, saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” He then stood, saluted us, and the two soldiers marched off.
Tomorrow, the nation celebrates Memorial Day, which for so many means a day off of school or work, the opening of the neighborhood pool, or a trip to the beach. But this year, Memorial Day holds a different meaning for me. I shall reflect on those who have served their country, both in times of war and in times of peace. I shall contemplate those who lost their lives in service to their country, and those who came home to their loved ones, safe and sound. I shall remember my father and how he proudly talked about his time in the Army, both hitches, and his stories, both serious and humorous of his time serving his country, with the sound of Taps and the sight of that folded American flag burned into my memory. Happy Memorial Day, indeed.