I’ve been reflecting on Memorial Day this past Monday remembering the many veterans whose funerals I have officiated over the years. Often at the graveside “Taps” is played:
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hill,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
The tune is simple and mournful, twenty-four notes long, sparse, with no flourishes, played on a bugle, it is less than a minute long. “Taps” was first composed by Union General Daniel Butterfield in 1862 as a song to be played at the end of the day for “lights out” in the army camp. It is one of those rare tunes most of us know by heart. We recognize it immediately when we hear the first three notes: “tah, tah, tah”.
“Taps” is a song of completion, of ending, of closure in the armed forces. The day is done…the sun is setting in the western sky, the American flag is taken down from the pole, carefully folded and put away. Now the camp is still, the soldiers are bedded down, the campfires are going out and the only person in sight is one lone soldier on guard duty. The day is done.
It also a song the marks the death of a someone who has served in the armed forces. Their life is over and the minister speaks the final words at the graveside: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Family and friends touch the casket one last time. Life is done.
Often at the burial of a veteran, an honor guard carries out one last farewell act. “Taps” is played off in the distance and then the American flag is folded tightly and precisely into a folded triangle and presented to the veteran’s next of kin: a grieving widow, a tearful husband, a mourning son or daughter. And these words of gratitude are spoken:
“On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service your loved one rendered this nation.”
Even after presiding at many graveside services for veterans, I still get tears in my eyes when “Taps” is played and the flag is presented. It’s interesting. When someone dies, many different things could be set to sum up that person’s life: accomplishments, degrees, offices held, power, influence.
But for the veteran, the final words expressed, both to them and about them, are words of gratitude for their service…service to our nation, to others, to a cause greater than one’s self. I think that’s why I always become a bit emotional at these funerals. Regardless of how I might feel at any given time about war or the foreign policy of our nation or the seemingly ongoing sin of lifting up sword against one another, I can’t help but admire and respect those who wear our nation’s uniforms and serve on behalf of all of us.
Memorial Day should challenge all of us as citizens and humans to take time to look at our own lives and ask: What am I doing in the service of others? What words will be said on my behalf at my funeral? What will I be remembered for? Have I made this broken and beautiful world a better place by being here?
So in the shadow of this Memorial Day may we all thank our veterans and those presently serving for their sacrifice and example. I’m not sure I have lived a life worthy enough to have “Taps” played at my funeral… but I’m willing to try.
How about you?
You are loved,