Air Force Funerals: Procedures, Honors & Traditions

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If you’re planning to attend an Air Force member’s funeral or you’re planning a funeral for your own loved one, it’s important to know what takes place before, during, and after. Your loved one is uniquely entitled to special honors and treatment. 

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Members of the military give their lives to serve and protect America in times of peace and conflict. As a way to respect and honor their years of service, the government extends special treatment to service members. Here’s everything you need to know in preparation for attending or planning an Air Force member’s funeral.

What Happens During an Air Force Member’s Funeral?

Members of the Air Force are proud to fly high and service the nation alongside their fellow service members. Tasked with everything from protecting our borders to playing key roles in critical missions, these servicemen and women deserve the highest thanks our nation can offer.

The traditions and honors bestowed upon them at the time of their death is one way a grateful nation can give back to them and their families.

Gravesite vs. committal shelter

When most people think of funeral services, they picture a group gathered around the gravesite with the casket in position. However, for some military funerals, the setup is a bit different. When burying a service member at a national cemetery, the funeral service will take place at a committal shelter. This is an open-air shelter set apart from the rest of the cemetery for the purpose of providing a short, private service where honors can be rendered to the deceased. 

Once the committal service concludes, the casket is taken directly to the gravesite by cemetery employees and is prepared for burial. Families are welcomed to return later in the day to visit the gravesite where flowers from the committal ceremony will be placed alongside a temporary funeral plaque. 

At state veteran’s cemeteries and private cemeteries, honors are bestowed upon the deceased at the gravesite, as there is no shelter set up for a committal service. If remaining graveside during the funeral service is important to you and your family, consider having your loved one buried in a state veteran’s cemetery or a private cemetery instead of a national cemetery.

Traditions

When it comes to military funerals, the word “traditions” can be used interchangeably with “protocol.” Proper protocol is determined by the military manual and handbook regarding funerals for service members.

This includes such things as how service members should dress, when they should salute, and how they should stand. Here are a few traditions and items of protocol you can expect at an Air Force member’s funeral.

Uniforms

All active-duty members of the Air Force should wear full dress uniform during the funeral. Retired members may also be in uniform, but uniforms are not required. All members of the honor guard will be in dress uniform.

Saluting

Service members are expected to salute during the following instances:

  1. The hearse passes them
  2. The flag-draped casket moves or the folded flag and urn pass by
  3. The gun salute
  4. During “Taps”
  5. Lowering the casket

If retired or former members of the military are present but not in uniform, they may salute during the above circumstances. Civilians should not salute but instead place their right hand over their heart after removing all hats or other headwear.

Poems or readings

You may want to include poems or readings at a committal service when military honors are bestowed upon the deceased. If deciding to allow several people read a poem, share a eulogy for a veteran, or share a reading, this should be done during a funeral apart from the committal service.

Should you choose one poem or a short reading by a clergy member, this can be done during the committal service.

Honor guards

Each Air Force member who is honorably discharged or retired and left the military in good standing is entitled to military honors. This means a minimum of two honor guard members present during the funeral to bestow honors upon the deceased service member.

The Air Force provides two types of honors funerals: full honors and standard honors. A full honors funeral provides one member from each unit of the Air Force Honor Guard to bestow honors on the deceased. These service members will contribute to different honors including color-bearers, the firing party, an armed escort, pallbearers, and the U.S. Air Force Band.

To qualify for a full honors funeral, the deceased servicemember must fit into one of the following categories:

  • A recipient of the Medal of Honor
  • A retired officer of any rank
  • A retired chief master sergeant rank E-9
  • Active duty repatriation
  • Killed in action
  • Chosen for full honors by an act of Congress

Standard honors include the firing party, a bugler, and pallbearers. Any service member that left the Air Force in good standing and obtained rank E-1 through E-8 qualifies for a standard honors funeral.

Prayers

Prayers are welcomed and can be offered both during a graveside service and a committal service. 

Playing of “Taps”

“Taps” has long been used in the military and originates back to the Civil War. Initially created for use as a “lights out” signal, its first funeral use occurred during a Civil War funeral to honor a Union cannoneer killed in action. Since that time, “Taps” became standard procedure in every military funeral, regardless of rank or years of service.

A bugler is provided if one is available for the date and time of your loved one’s funeral or an electronic recording will be sounded in a bugler’s stead. If you know of someone available to volunteer, you may ask them to bestow the honor of playing Taps for your loved one’s service.

Flag presentation

The military funeral flag presentation is a solemn event that comes near the end of the committal ceremony. After Taps is played, the honor guard carefully lifts the flag from off the casket and fold it into the standard triangle shape. The honor guard will then present the flag to the next of kin or, if no family members are present, to a close friend.

Military funeral flowers

As with any funeral, you may choose to have military funeral flowers placed at the committal shelter during the ceremony. Once the ceremony is over, the flowers will be transported to the gravesite with the casket or niche for an urn.

Visiting the gravesite

Family members are encouraged to return to the cemetery after the committal service toward the end of the day. At this point, they can visit the gravesite, where flowers and a temporary plaque can help them locate the grave of their loved one.

If your loved one chose inurnment in a columbarium, you will find flowers placed near their final resting place and a temporary plaque to help you locate your loved one’s niche.

Grave markers and plaques

All service members receive free headstone or niche plaque from the U.S. Government regardless of their burial location, customized to include your loved one’s name, dates, rank, places of service, awards received, religious symbol, and lines of sentiment as room allows. Headstones provided will match those already in use at your loved one’s cemetery.

They set all plaques and headstones no later than 60 days after the burial of a service member.

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How Are Air Force Members Typically Buried?

Once the committal service concludes, the cemetery staff removes the casket and takes it directly to the gravesite. The casket gets lowered into the prepared plot, after which dirt and grass seed is placed on top.

Urns will be placed in their in-ground vault, if buried, or placed to rest in their niche at the cemetery’s columbarium. Once this process is complete, family members can go back to the cemetery to visit their loved one’s final resting place.

How Does an Air Force Member’s Family Request Honors?

Requesting honors for your loved one’s burial is a simple process that requires little more than a few forms and a phone call.

If your loved one’s burial or inurnment takes place at Arlington National Cemetery:

  • Call the cemetery main office at (877) 907-8585.
  • Request military honors for your loved one when scheduling the funeral.
  • Provide DD Form 214 to the funeral director.
  • The government pays expenses with no further action required from the family.

For burial or inurnment at a National Park Service cemetery, state veteran’s cemetery, or another national cemetery:

  • Provide DD Form 214 to the funeral director.
  • The funeral director coordinates the provision of funeral honors
  • The government pays for expenses related to funeral honors with no further action required from the family.

If your loved one will is laid to rest at a private cemetery:

  • Provide DD Form 214 to the funeral director
  • The funeral director coordinates the provision of funeral honors
  • Expenses related to funeral honors are paid for by the family and reimbursed by the government. Families must submit VA Form 21-530, a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers, their death certificate, and funeral bills to any regional VA office.

Honoring Your Service Member

The men and women who serve in the United States Air Force dedicate themselves to a life of selflessness and devotion to their country.

They answer when called and sacrifice the comforts and pleasures of home to respond. It’s only fitting that they get a funeral service that honors life and pays respect to a legacy.


Sources

  1. “Committal Service.” Burial Benefits, National Cemetery Administration, 2020. cem.va.gov/burial_benefits/committal_service.asp.
  2. “Frequently Asked Questions.” USAF Honor Guard, United States Air Force, 2020. honorguard.af.mil/Contact-Us/Questions/
  3. Nix, Elizabeth. ”How Did Taps Originate?” History Stories, The History Channel, 15 April 2016. history.com/news/how-did-taps-originate.
  4. “Requests.” USAF Honor Guard Requests, United States Air Force, 2020. honorguard.af.mil/Contact-Us/Requests/ 

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