Military Funerals – A Brief History

The ceremony carried out at military funerals has several features which remind us of practices of bygone days and which add to the impressiveness of the occasion. One of the most noticeable features is the custom of reversing the order of things from what they are normally. When the body is being taken to the place of burial, firearms are reversed, the precedence of those who follow the coffin is reversed, and if a horse follows bearing the dead warrior’s boots, these are placed reverse-wise in the stirrups. This custom of reversing things is very ancient and was carried out by the Greeks in civil funerals as well as military. When Sir Philip Sidney was buried in 1586 the troop who accompanied the cortege to the ship at Flushing, for the conveyance of his body to London, “trailed their swords and muskets in the dust”. At the state funeral in London there were in attendance “300 citizens trained for war, all holding their weapons reversed.”, Captain Venn, a well-known military writer of the seventeenth century, refers to “pikes trailing reversed” at the burial of a private soldier. In his famous diary, John Evelyn has the following, under the date 6th March, 1652, in reference to the funeral of General Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law: “Saw the magnificent funeral of that arch-rebel Ireton, carried in pomp from Somerset House to Westminster, accompanied with regiments of soldiers, horse and foot.. Thus in a grave pace, drums covered with cloth, soldiers reversing their arms, they proceeded through the streets in a very solemn manner”. The carrying of muskets in the reverse manner was also done at the funeral of the great Duke of Marlborough in 1722.

In ancient times it was a practice, which our Saxon forefathers perpetuated, of burying a warrior’s horse with him. As late as the eighteenth century it was the custom in some European countries to bury the chargers of great military commanders with their late masters. The idea behind the practice was that they might be of use to their masters in the next world. We do not follow this practice, but up to recent times the custom of leading the charger to the grave side behind the coffin was observed.

In former times the pages of nobles followed the coffin of their deceased masters, carrying the regalia of the various Orders to which they belonged. This is perpetuated today by the carrying of an officer’s decorations and medals on cushions by insignia-bearers behind the coffin.

The origin and meaning of firing three volleys of musketry at the grave side do not appear to have been established beyond question. Fortescue (vol I, p 90) states that “the musketeers fired three volleys over it (the corpse) in the name of the Trinity” – this in reference to the sixteenth century. Referring again to the burial in London of Sir Philip Sidney, the account states that “Rounds of small shot were thrice fired by all men present and from the great ordnance on the walls two volleys were discharged as the corpse was taken from the shore”, in Holland to the ship; and at the London burial “a double volley of shot from the churchyard informed the world outside that Sir Philip Sidney had been buried.”

However, three volleys seem to have been the usual custom from the seventeenth century onwards, and might possible have had their origin in the pre-Christian-era practice when the pagan warriors cremated their dead comrades. At these ceremonials they rode on horseback round the burning pyre three times. Originally the volleys were fired inside the church, but the smoke and noise soon caused that practice to cease. At the present day the three volleys are fired at the funerals of all ranks up to and including the rank of full Colonel only. At the funerals of General Officers a salute of guns is fired, the number of rounds varying according to rank – eg, nineteen for a Field-Marshal and eleven for a Brigadier.

The sounding of the Last Post is, of course, the deceased’s “goodbye” to this world, and the Reveille is the hope of awakening in the next and better world. In Trojan days there was a “clang of trumpets” at the cremation of their warriors.

Article courtesy of John Haynes.