…lined the row to the grave in dress uniform. They were young men with taut bodies and unlined faces. Each man knew the ceremony for the fallen comrade; stand straight, grim looks made implausible by their impossible youth, smart salutes with hand presented just above the eyebrow but quick over the eye.
I wonder if it hard to unfold and refold a long flag in white gloves? The poor fellow at the foot of the casket stumbled a bit in the unfolding. No, not with his feet. He was calm and still below his polished belt and above his tunic. Only his hands shook, just a bit, not enough for the usual onlooker to notice but just enough to show his fear to one who lived his life before a crowd. The bemedaled Sergeant (Are they still called Sergeant? He had a lone stripe at the top of his rank, bleeding down in red to encase three other stripes just above the bend of his arm. Is he a Sergeant or a Specialist, or what?) suffered, in the unfolding, the dread fear of the Corps, this thing and this thing only, not death or dismemberment, not capture, torture or abandonment; he terribly dreaded the thought he might fail a comrade in his duty and his fingers showed his dread.
The two honored Marines unfolded the flag, held it carefully on each corner, passed it over the casket, above the flowers, over the dress hat and the white gloves laid out there, held it for a moment, more carefully folded it again. The trembling Sergeant presented the flag to the solemn daughter of the deceased, while all around her wept.
“We present this flag to you on behalf of a grateful nation for your father’s service,” he said, or it sounded like he said something like this.
The incantation differs from one messenger to another but the presenter is to know at least the relationship of the dead to the one who receives the flag and he is to mention the nation’s gratitude.
A Marine in full dress played Taps then. He was about twenty steps from the funeral tent, just the right distance. The cemetery where we laid our friend’s dead body sits down in a bowl of earth. The sun catches the rim of the bowl early and this day, at Taps, there were lots of white clouds, darkening the bowl even more. The cloud cover presaged a light, cool breeze, so the place felt close to dark and colder than the day itself.
Only humans would think to play a brass instrument at dusk and dawn, the same trumpet to lull men to sleep and the n to call them to duty. Taps lilts, if played as intended, the bugler’s tongue must be still, except to open and close the air flow, no tremble or shrill. You cannot “listen away” when the bugler blows Taps, anymore than you can “look away” from the bride at a wedding on her entrance, or your baby when a nurse puts the infant in your hands. While men listen to Taps, their minds turn to home, wherever that might be, to kith and kin. For a moment they forget their prurient intentions for the night itself and believe, for the darkness, that God is nigh.
I quoted Lincoln at the graveside, citing him because people know him. I left Heraclitus uncited but not unsaid and a bit of Aeschylus as well. It was enough. We prayed, the breeze laid down and the Color Guard withdrew. A casket was left, the task of the mortician now to consign the remains to Mother Earth. I do not like that part much and went quickly to the car where my driver waited.