Origin of ‘Taps’ Played at Military Funerals

Updated

If you’ve ever attended a military funeral, you’ve likely heard the distinctive melody of “Taps.” This memorial song has been used to honor American soldiers for over a hundred years, but where did it come from? Military funerals follow very strict protocols based on tradition and honor. From flag ceremonies to gun salutes, there are a lot of elements of these services that have stood the test of time. 

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Though moving and meaningful, we don’t often take the time to consider the history of these iconic military funeral programs. Understanding history is one of the best ways to respect military funeral etiquette while honoring the deceased. For those who gave their lives to their country, it’s important to respect this act of courage and compassion. 

With that in mind, where did the famous melody “Taps” come from? This tune is highly recognizable, but many don’t know it dates back to the American Civil War. This song leaves quite a legacy in American history. Let’s turn back the clock to share where the origin of “Taps” at military funerals comes from. 

Where Did ‘Taps’ First Come From?

To begin, where did the song “Taps” originate? It takes back to the American Civil War in July 1862. The U.S. General Daniel Butterfield and his brigade spent the night camping at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia after the Seven Days Battles. There was a traditional bugle call the Army used to let troops know it was time to sleep, but some believed this didn’t fit the somber reality of war. 

General Butterfield thought this bugle call should be more melodious after a long, tiring day. He reworked an existing call and had his brigade bugler play it for the Army men. Soon, buglers from other units spread this 24-note tune. It was so popular it even caught on with the Confederate troops. 

Soon after creating “Taps,” it was played for the first military funeral. It was first placed for a Union cannoneer who was killed in the war. His commanding officer decided the bugle call would be a safer way to honor the loss.

Traditionally, a rifle fired three volleys over the grave of the soldier. During the Civil War, this could be seen as an attack by any nearby enemy. Today, this legacy of the Civil War lives on as one of the most popular military funeral songs

Why Is It Called ‘Taps’?

Next, where does the famous name “Taps” come from? Historians can only guess at the origin of the name. Most likely, this name comes from the tradition that was commonplace before this new bugle call. During the normal lights-out call, there was a series of three drum beats. These were called the “Drum Taps,” “The Taps,” and “Taps.” 

When Butterfield’s bugle call officially replaced the original tradition, the name remained. However, it was formally listed as “Extinguish Lights” in military manuals until the 20th century. Since this time, it’s come to be known as simply “Taps” in honor of the earlier tradition. Some thought the word came from the Dutch word for “tattoo,” which is “taptoe.” However, it’s more likely associated with the signal for nights out. 

There is still a memorial at Harrison’s Landing commemorating the origin of “Taps.” You can find the monument at Berkeley Plantation. This is also the birthplace of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the US. 

How Did ‘Taps’ Start Getting Played at Military Funerals?

With that in mind, how did “Taps” go from a nighttime call to a staple of military funerals? It didn’t become a mandatory part of military funerals until 1891. Though it was likely used unofficially long before this, it wasn’t officially designated until this date after the Civil War. Since then, it’s become a way to honor all those who fought for the country. 

The history of “Taps” honors every veteran throughout U.S. history. There’s something beautiful about having the same tones lingering through centuries. The song was a way to send troops to sleep after a long day, and it’s still a call for rest to this day. Though death might be the ultimate rest, this is a reminder of the long, rich history of the American military. 

When Does ‘Taps’ Get Played During a Funeral?

Today, when is “Taps” played during a funeral? Though it was traditionally played as a way to send troops to sleep, that isn’t all it’s used for today. It’s true that “Taps” is the final call in the evening on military installations, but this isn’t all. It’s also used within military funerals. 

As of 2012, Congress recognized “Taps” as the “National Song as Remembrance.” It’s commonly played each day at military cemeteries as a way to honor the dead. You also might hear it as part of any honorary military event, like during Memorial Day.

The song remains to symbolize a final farewell. Whether saying farewell to the day, a year of service, or a loved one, it’s a way to honor all those who paid the ultimate price. It’s such a part of the military that it’s a recognizable part of national culture as a whole. Anyone who has military funeral honors is likely to request the playing of “Taps.” 

Who Typically Plays ‘Taps’ During a Funeral?

Now that you know the history of “Taps,” who plays this during a funeral? Many are surprised to learn that there aren’t strict rules around who is or isn’t allowed to play “Taps” during a funeral service. Traditionally, “Taps” was played by a military bugler. Their primary role was musical, but they also serve as messengers, assistance, and fatigue duty. 

Nowadays, military buglers are still the first choice for “Taps” performances at services. However, there are fewer buglers in the military today. This means anyone is eligible to perform “Taps” at a funeral service in honor of a serviceman or woman. The Department of Defense prefers using a live bugler, whether military or civilian versus a recording. 

The bugler for a funeral service can be a volunteer or a hired musician. There are many veterans and musicians alike who volunteer to honor veterans through their musical skills. If there isn’t a performer available, it’s also permitted to use a high-quality recording of “Taps” on a stereo.

If a stereo is used, it should be placed out of sight of the funeral party. One of the best places to find local buglers is at nearby high school or college bands. Many of these perform volunteer hours for local veteran funerals. 

What Should Civilians and Servicepeople Do When ‘Taps’ is Played?

Finally, what should people do when they hear “Taps” at a ceremony or military funeral? Unlike other funeral music, there is a specific way to act to show your respect. Even if you’re a civilian, it’s important to pay respect. Luckily, it’s a very simple process. The same protocols that apply during the National Anthem are true for “Taps” as well. 

If you’re a service member, you should:

  • Stand at attention and salute
  • Place your right hand over your heart (if you’re not in uniform)
  • Stop any movement or activity
  • Pull over if in a moving vehicle

If you’re a civilian, you should:

  • Remove any hats, if wearing one
  • Place your right hand over your heart
  • Face the flag

Like all funeral services, it’s important to be quiet and to pay attention. Your respect is very meaningful, and it goes a long way. Because “Taps” is such an important part of funeral and memorial ceremonies, it can be a solemn, moving moment. This acts as a moment of silence, only the tones of the bugler being heard as all are quiet. 

During a military funeral, “Taps” is played after the family rises for honors. Once complete, there is traditionally a flag folding ceremony. The flag is given to the next of kin, and the casket team leaves the gravesite. Just as “Taps” symbolizes the end of a long day of service, it’s also a way to announce the closing of the ceremony. It provides a moment of calm and clarity after a loss. 

Honor Those Who Serve with ‘Taps’

Now you know how “Taps” turned into a call to dim the lights at the end of the day to a well-known funeral song. Changed by Daniel Butterfield in 1862, this tune became more than a practicality of war. Instead, it was a work of art, creating one of the most famous bugle calls in history. 

Whether you’re on a military base, attending a memorial event, or honoring a veteran who lost his or her life, “Taps” is a sign of respect and history. Though it might only be 24 notes long, “Taps” is the official song of remembrance for the United States. It carries a lot of meaning not just amongst those who served, but also for the entire nation. How do you honor the veterans in your life?


Source:
  1. Nix, Elizabeth. “How Did ‘Taps’ Originate?” History. History.com

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