Full honors military funeral is steeped in tradition

When John Stanford is buried tomorrow, the funeral procession through Arlington National Cemetery will include a single, riderless horse, wearing an empty saddle.

In one stirrup will be a cavalry boot, turned backward – an indication the retired Army major general will never ride again.

From beginning to end, a funeral with full military honors is a strict ceremony packed with hundreds of years of tradition.

“It’s a beautiful, poignant event that the military does very well, but  a lot of the symbolism can be lost on the public,” said Dov  Schwartz, an Army spokesman.

Here is what will happen during the burial service, scheduled for 7 a.m. Pacific time (local TV stations plan to include footage in their newscasts):

— After a brief service in Arlington’s Memorial Chapel, Stanford’s  casket will be loaded onto a caisson, a horse drawn carriage built  in 1918 that was once used to carry 75 mm cannons and ammunition chests.

— A procession will leave the chapel for Section 7A of America’s most famous burial ground, about a half-mile away, where Stanford  will be interred. Among those buried in this section are General Roscoe Robinson Jr., the first African American in the Army to attain the rank of four-star general; Commander Michael Smith, pilot of  the Space Shuttle Challenger that exploded in 1986; and Clark Clifford, an adviser to four presidents who was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.

— A 24-piece Army Band will lead the procession, playing music selected by Stanford’s family: “How Great Thou Art,” “Rock of Ages” and “Amazing Grace.”

— Behind the band will march troops from the 3rd U.S. Infantry, also known as “The Old Guard,” the oldest active-serving infantry  unit in the nation. Established in 1784, this unit guards the nearby Tomb of the Unknowns 24 hours a day.

— The casket will be drawn by six white horses. All will have  saddles, but only three will have riders – echoing the fact that when  the caisson was used to carry artillery, half the horses would carry supplies.

— Behind the casket, after the riderless horse, come honorary pallbearers, and then Stanford’s family.

— When the procession reaches the grave, Stanford’s casket will  be carried to the side of the grave and the flag stretched taut and centered over the casket. A chaplain will perform a brief service,   followed by a cannon salute. Begun by the British Navy, the salute is meant to symbolize respect and trust, because firing the cannons  would disarm the ship, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Two-star generals are entitled to 13 shots.

— The chaplain will complete a benediction, then a seven-person rifle team will fire a three-round volley over the grave, for a total of  21 shots. (This is different from a 21-gun salute, which is performed with cannons, and only for a president.) The tradition descends  from an old custom: troops would halt fighting to remove the dead  from the battlefield, then fire three volleys into the air to signal it was time to resume fighting.

— A bugler will play “Taps.” The song, so named because it once  was tapped out using a drum, became part of military funerals  during the Civil War when it was substituted for the louder rifle  volleys in some funerals so as not to arouse the enemy camped nearby.

— Assembled troops will fold the flag and give it to the chaplain,  who will present it to Stanford’s widow or family.

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