Laudizen King Banner gathered along the way
long road home Signposts and Junctions      

Burial Detail

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

Burial Detail

Remembering a Military Funeral Detail at Fort Bragg


In late March of 1971, the Army notified my unit, the 14th Military Intelligence Battalion at Ft. Bragg, that the battalion would provide personnel to perform “burial detail service” during the month of May anywhere within the State of North Carolina. Any Army veteran or active duty soldier can request a military style funeral, and all Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard units with a presence in North Carolina rotated this detail on a monthly basis. The Commanding Officer of the battalion quickly delegated the responsibility for this detail to Company A, and the commanding officer of Company A promptly delegated the responsibility for selecting and training the members of this detail to the highest ranking enlisted man, a Master Sergeant also called the Company Top Sergeant, or ‘Top’ for short.

Top gave us the word about the upcoming detail one day as we stood in our morning formation. The detail would last for two months and require the formation of two different teams. During April, we would form teams and practice the various roles that our assignment required. In May, we would perform our service anywhere in the State of North Carolina as requested by Army authorities. One team would act as pallbearers and fold the flag draped over the coffin. The other team would consist of seven honor guards who would fire a three-volley twenty-one gun salute. The burial detail would also have the services of a bugler who would play ‘Taps’ at the graveside. One officer and a senior NCO would accompany the teams. When you were not on the detail, you reported to your normal duty workstation, there would be no free time off for serving. If you wanted to volunteer, you could talk to him directly. If not enough people came forward to offer their services, Top would pick “volunteers” next week.

During this period, the nightly television news constantly showed the flag draped coffins of Vietnam War dead arriving at Dover AFB. At the time, almost every junior NCO in Company A was a Vietnam veteran and planned to serve here at Fort Bragg only until their tour of duty ended. Some soldiers were dismayed at the prospect of interacting with grieving families and attending funerals of soldiers killed in battle. Many had their own war experiences fresh in their minds. We talked amongst ourselves and wondered why a professional or all-volunteer honor guard unit, such as the one that served at Arlington, did not handle this detail.

The following week, Company A lined up for our usual Monday morning formation and sure enough, it was time for "volunteers". Top selected me for this detail, just as I knew he would. Top selected my friend Bill as well, another one of his favorite malcontents. Soon we had our sixteen “volunteers”.

Later that day, we had our first burial detail meeting. The senior NCO was a Staff Sergeant from another company in the battalion. He was a career soldier and had been in uniform over seven years, but he was a veteran of two tours overseas and was ‘down’ with the younger soldiers. As long as you did your job and didn’t cause him grief from above, you could pretty much be your own person. He did not go out of his way to make your life miserable like some other career NCOs did; he was an honest man, proud to of his service, and I liked him. We called him Sarge.

Sarge went over what the next two months would mean to us. We would form our two teams and practice twice a week. If the detail did not look professional enough, he would increase the practice time accordingly. We would wear our Class A dress uniforms when we performed at a funeral service. The Army provided everyone on the detail with additional free uniform dry cleaning and pressing services during the two months the detail was active. We would travel in several large Army station wagons driven by soldiers from a motor transport unit. Although we had two different teams, everyone cross-trained so each could perform all the roles required of the detail. We had seven for the rifle salute, six for pallbearer duty and flag folding, and three alternates in case of family or medical emergency, woe to anyone taking any sick call. The rifle team would use M-14 rifles instead of the M-16; the M-14 fired a larger blank round and tended to jam less when the spent casing ejected and the rifle chambered the next round for firing. Those firing the rifles would wear white gloves. I volunteered for the honor guard that would fire the three-volley salute, my friend Bill was a pallbearer and flag folder.

In the last week of April, we performed two complete walkthroughs with dress uniform, white gloves, and blank rounds in the weapons. The month of practice and preparation was now over, for better or for worse, the month of our obligation arrived, and we found ourselves on-call for military burial detail throughout the entire State of North Carolina. The next time we went through our drill it would be “live”; no one knew what was coming, and none of us could have guessed.

During the month of May, we performed our ritual at eight funerals, but never at a funeral for a soldier recently killed in action. We performed at the burials of old veterans who had passed away and requested a military funeral, the right of almost every veteran. Any active duty soldier or veteran, other than those with a dishonorable discharge, can request a burial with military honors, and our detail would serve to fulfill the request of those deceased veterans who had served in the US Army and lived in North Carolina when they died. One irony was that the pallbearers never performed their pallbearer duties because friends and family members performed that function during the funerals. After bringing the pallbearers along on one trip just to fold the flag, the Army decided that those of us who fired the three-volley salute should also fold the flag at the coffin; that change would require one less vehicle and save on traveling costs.

One funeral in particular stands out in my mind; on that day, we traveled to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The drivers had detailed maps of the entire State and they needed them. North Carolina is long and narrow, and it is not particularly easy to traverse the entire length from seashore to mountains. We left early in the morning for the western end of North Carolina and we allowed ourselves plenty of time to find our destination and prepare for the services. We had the address of the church and knew roughly, where the building was located. The official word was the detail would receive "additional information" near the church, so we followed our directions until we reached a small intersection of country roads deep within the rural fastness of the hills. We pulled over on a flat stretch of gravel by the side of the road and waited. Soon after our arrival, a car approached and rolled to a stop behind our vehicles. An elderly black man wearing a black suit got out of the car and walked up to the driver's window of the first vehicle. He confirmed our identity and purpose, and then directed us to a small dirt road beyond the intersection and instructed us to follow that lane for several miles; a person waited on that road with directions to our final destination.

We motored up the small dirt track with the verdant spring thick about the convoy; we traveled at a crawl because the cars raised a thick plume of dust. As we drove the dirt lane, we had all eyes peering down through the tunnel of overhanging tree limbs that framed the road. Up ahead, a car sat parked by the side of the road. A tall figure of a black man stepped out on to the road. We slowed to a crawl and approached him; without a word, he pointed down a narrow dirt driveway to our right that led into the woods. We turned and slowly drove the large and loaded vehicles down through the trees.

In a hundred yards, we came to a large open area surrounded by a thin hardwood forest interspersed with pines. On the left sat a small white church, the steep roof topped by a short steeple with a cross. In front of the church sat an old black hearse and several black sedans. On one side of the church was a large, dirt parking area. On the other side, and running off to the woods in the distance, was a field of grass about a foot high. We parked in the corner of the dirt lot at a spot farthest away from the church. Another black funeral director wearing a black suit approached us from the church and the officer went to talk with him. The rest of us got out of the vehicles and stretched our legs as we put our equipment in order: we put blank rounds in the magazines, put on our uniform jackets and hats, and slipped our hands into the white gloves.

The officer came back to the cars and talked to Sarge; he pointed towards a dirt mound that stood in the field about a hundred feet away. As the scheduled time approached, we followed Sarge down a path in the grass and walked past the freshly dug grave out in the field. Several rows of folding chairs sat lined up on one side of the grave and a squat wooden stand stood on the other: beside the stand was the pile of dirt from the excavation. Sarge looked around and then brought us through the grass to a place about forty feet away. As I walked, I could see small old gravestones sitting in the ground through the grass. We chambered a round, then formed a line and stood at ease with our weapons at our side. The trumpet player went off by himself and disappeared behind some foliage in the tree line behind us.

Cars came down the narrow drive and the lot soon became filled. Old black men and women emerged from the cars and went inside the church. Two or three younger couples with children also appeared. Some stopped and gazed out at the field where we stood, and others looked stoically at the mound of dirt that marked the location of the grave. In a while, I heard the sound of preaching and organ music coming from the church; wafting out of the open windows to where we stood at ease in the late afternoon sun as butterflies and insects frolicked in the grass of the field. Gospel hymns now came wafting out on the air. More preaching and music followed. Eventually the hall became quiet and the front doors opened. Sarge brought us to attention. A flag covered casket was slowly borne down the steps, carried across the field, and lifted into place on the wooden bier. Grieving family members sat in the chairs as friends and acquaintances stood behind them in a semicircle. The officer stood at one end of the grave close to the casket. Sarge gave us the command to stand “at attention”. In the warm pure air of the afternoon, the preacher made a few more remarks.

At a command from Sarge, we brought our weapons up to port arms and formed up for the salute. Sarge crisply gave the commands: ready, aim, fire. We did this three times. The melancholy sound of ‘Taps’ came out to the grave from behind us. A soft gasp came from the crowd; none of the mourners had seen the bugler take his trumpet and make his way into the foliage behind us. No one spoke as he played, some cried quietly.

When ‘Taps’ finished, the preacher said a few more words, and then nodded to Sarge. He gave us a quiet order and we stacked our weapons in front of us, butt plates on the ground and each supported by the barrel of the rifle next to it. He then brought us to attention marched six of us through the grass to where the casket stood on the bier, and we formed up with three on each side. An old smell lingered around the flag and casket that reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We went through the ritual of folding the flag. I felt strange and sad eyes looking at me as I stood there, folding the flag in the grass of a field, standing at the open grave of an old black veteran near the mountains of North Carolina. I looked down at my shined shoes nestled in the grass and the dirt. We finished folding the flag and passed it on to Sarge. He tucked the flag and pulled the folds tighter, then turned to the officer and stiffly gave him the flag. Sarge marched us back to where a soldier stood by the stacked weapons of our detail; I heard the officer presenting the flag to the next of kin, a token of gratitude from a grateful nation.

We retrieved our weapons and formed up in a line once again. Sarge brought us to “shoulder arms” and we marched slowly through the field and back to the green vehicles parked on the far side of the church. As we milled about the cars and stowed our gear, the detail officer joined us from the graveside.

“Well, that was different,” he said. “Good job, everyone. Thanks, Sarge. Everything went well."

“Thank you, sir,” replied Sarge, relaxing at last.

“Let's go back to the post,” the duty officer said. “It’s been a long day and it’ll be late by the time we get back to Bragg. We’ll grab something hot to eat along the way."

We checked the M-14s and magazines for unfired blanks, stored our weapons, and took off our jackets, hats, and gloves. I took one last look at the people in the field sitting and standing solemnly by the side of the grave, the shadows growing long in the late afternoon. We loaded ourselves into the vehicles and the drivers soon had us heading east towards Fayetteville. Later, we stopped at a small stand for hamburgers and a coke before continuing on our way.

It was a long ride back to Fort Bragg and I could not sleep. I was twenty-one years old and thought about my own death, where and when it might be, and wondered if anyone would be present to stand at my graveside. I realized that a flag draped coffin is not always about the tragic death of a young soldier with a grieving widow standing at the graveside. It often marks the end of forgotten old soldiers quietly laid to rest in remote fields on quiet spring days or on frigid winter mornings, some with no family or friends to remember them or mourn their passing. If one has a military funeral, at least someone marks a soldier's final journey.

Today is Memorial Day in the year 2008. Veterans march in parades, and children place small flags next to gravestones in cemeteries throughout the Central Valley of California. Just like every Memorial Day, my thoughts drift back to a sun-drenched spring afternoon when I stood in a field in North Carolina and listened to the mournful voices of the old black congregation as they grieved over the passing of one of their own. A strange disquiet entered into my soul on that day, to serve as a relic of my participation in the events of that long ago afternoon.

Through that day, I remain connected to a far more distant past, a past marked by the trappings of a timeless military tradition. The memories of that field are within me still, and they are close and poignant after all these years.


Laudizen King
Modesto, CA