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.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard