The meaning of each fold
There is something that demands a prayer upon a military funeral flagfolding. That, at least, has long been the considered, informal judgment of National Cemetery Administration volunteer honor guards as they carry out their solemn duty. Their 13-fold recitation, one for each original American colony, is part patriotic homage, part prayer for the fallen. Congress didn’t order it; there were no official memoranda. The aim is to comfort, and it has done so for generations of the bereaved.
But last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs tried to remove mention of God or religion after a California family objected to one guard’s mangling of the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This massive over-reaction was halted on Oct. 30, thankfully, when the VA reinstated the prayer. Hearing the twists of logic, and the various turns of this story, is to understand why government should tread as lightly as possible on such spontaneous traditions. Let the families of fallen service members have prayers among their burial traditions.
In a Sept. 27 memorandum, the director of the National Cemetery Administration’s Office of Field Programs, Steve L. Munro, ordered honor guards to stop using a handout titled “The Meaning of Each Fold of an Honor Guard Funeral Flag,” or reciting its contents, unless specifically requested by families, citing a “complaint sent to the President of the United States that there was a gross error in the handout with reference to the 11th fold ‘[. . .] glorifying the Gods Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
That was a real error, to be sure: The Abrahamic religions worship the God of those three holy men, not the men themselves. But the proper solution is to correct the error, not to ban the practice altogether.
Honor guards are the beating heart of a military funeral. Retaining the recitation would not be some gross intrusion of religion upon government. Families of non-Abrahamic religions, and those of no religion at all, can opt out. The vast majority of families prefer to partake of this tradition. They should be able to do so.
Reading the memo, leaked to the press, a very Gradgrind-like bureaucratic disdain shows through. “There are various versions of the script circulating by anonymous authors. Some of those scripts are religious in nature and also ascribe meaning to the individual folds put into the flag,” it reads. The horror. “Effectively immediately all national cemeteries are to refrain from distributing any handouts on ‘The Meaning of Each Fold of an Honor Guard Funeral Flag.’ “ Exceptions would be made when next-of-kin specifically requests a recitation. That, of course, is how government kills a spontaneous tradition. It withers slowly on the vine.
The present uproar was needed to sustain it. Infuriated letters by Rep. Heath Shuler, North Carolina Democrat, and others, plus the American Legion’s vow to disobey orders, played their part. “Out-of-control secularists,” raged Rep. Ken Calvert, California Republican. A chastened VA issued this statement late Tuesday: “Honoring the burial wishes of veterans is one of the highest commitments for the men and women of VA,” said Undersecretary of Memorial Affairs William F. Tuerk. The 13fold recitation was reinstated.
Preserve our spontaneous, organic traditions. And for Abraham’s sake, let bereaved families have their prayers.